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In the beginning God created everything as sheer gift, and He made the man and the woman at the tail end of that project and gave them work to do. But the first full day that Adam and Eve enjoyed together was the seventh day, the day God rested from all of His labors (Gen. 2:1-3). While Adam and Eve had no sins to be justified for on that first Sabbath day, it still functions as a type of what God is like, what His grace is like, and where Christian work always comes from.
If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it (Isaiah 58:13–14).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
The prophet rebukes the people for fasting and afflicting themselves in superstitious ways, trying to manipulate God (Is. 58:3-5). The fast that God actually loves is the one in which heavy burdens are lifted, prisoners are set free, the hungry are fed, and the naked are clothed (Is. 58:6-7). This is how light breaks forth in a land, and these are the people God loves to listen to (Is. 58:8-10). God will be with those who seek to meet real needs, and He will make their bones fat and they will be like watered gardens, like springs of water to their communities (Is. 58:11). This is where Reformation comes from, and they will be known for it (Is. 58:12). They call the Sabbath a delight and delight themselves in the Lord (Is. 58:13-14).
FROM THE RIVER TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH
In Ezekiel 47, Ezekiel sees water running out over the threshold of the temple eastward (Ez. 47:1). That water runs out past the city gates, and after about a thousand cubits, it was ankle deep (Ez. 47:3). After another thousand cubits, it came up to a man’s waist (Ez. 47:4). And after another thousand, a man would have to swim through it (Ez. 47:5). Ezekiel is then told that those waters flow out to the desert and into the sea for the healing and life of the whole world (Ez. 47:6-12). Where does the water come from? And what is that water? The first question is easier to answer because the text tells us: the water is coming from the altar (Ez. 47:1). But the answer to the second question is available from the context: What does the water do? It heals everything it touches and gives life and fruitfulness (Ez. 47:8-9). And Jesus seems to give us a conclusive answer: “He that believeth in me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive…” (Jn. 7:38-39). Jesus (and His death and resurrection) is the altar of the New Covenant, and the living water is the Holy Spirit filling and spilling out of believers, like watered gardens.
WORK THAT IS JUSTIFIED BY FAITH
How does the Holy Spirit spill out of believers and refresh the land? Through joyful obedience and good works. But there is a massive difference between ascetic-driven good works and Sabbath-driven good works. One is a putrid pond; the other a life-giving stream. All people, but especially religious people, have a bad habit of trying to impress God and other people with “fasting” that is actually an elaborate charade of self-service (Is. 58:3, Mt. 6:16-18). There is a do-gooding spirit that wearies the doer and everyone around them and makes a spectacle that God completely ignores (Is. 58:4-5). This doesn’t mean God doesn’t want His people loosing bands of wickedness, lifting heavy burdens, setting captives free, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked. But God wants that good work driven by delighting in Him and His rest (Is. 58:13-14). In fact, there is no other kind of good work. God only notices the work that is driven by delight in Him. And do not turn that delight into some grim duty.
Paul makes the same point in Titus, insisting that believers be ready for every good work, careful to maintain good works, learning to maintain good works that are needed to be fruitful in every way (Tit. 3:1, 8, 14). But right in the middle of those exhortations is the kindness and love of God our Savior Who, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy, saved us, being justified by his grace, and made heirs of eternal life (Tit. 3:4-7). Justification by faith alone means that Christ’s obedience and death is received by God in our place as a free gift: our sins are imputed to Him and His righteous obedience is imputed to us, received by faith alone plus nothing (Gal. 3). Our job is to simply rest in it. But not only are we resting from our do-gooding to try to earn God’s favor or make up for our sins, we are actually resting in the fact that God has already accepted all of our works, our entire lives, for the sake of Christ alone (Eccl. 9:7, Tit. 3:5).
This means that all Christian work is done in joyful (restful) confidence since it is already accepted, already justified by His grace. This is why Christian work aims to loose burdens, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. And while this certainly can and does include various forms of emergency aid and sacrifice, it ordinarily includes infrastructures of labor, business, savings accounts, budgets, and free markets. When God made the world and welcomed the first people into it, they had nothing, but what God prepared for them was a world full of good and profitable work. Just because it’s organized and planned and thoughtful toward the long term, doesn’t make it any less sacrificial or generous. Frequently it is more sacrificial and generous.
One of the slanders of the Puritans is that they were grumpy Sabbatarians and fussy prudes. But the reality is almost entirely the opposite. C.S. Lewis writes: “Whatever they [puritans] were they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them… For More, a Protestant was one ‘drunk on the new must of lewd lightness of mind and vain gladness of heart’. Luther, he said, had made converts precisely because ‘he spiced all the poison’ with ‘liberty’. Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad to be true… Even when we pass on… to Calvin himself we shall find an explicit rejection of that ‘uncivil and froward philosophy’ which ‘alloweth us in no use of creatures save that which is needful, and going about (as it were in envy) to take from us the lawful enjoyment of God’s blessings… When God created food, ‘He intended not only the supplying of our necessities but delight and merriment’ (hilaritas)” (English Literature in the 16th Century, 34-35). If Christians are to be accused of anything in their work it should be that we are excellent at everything we do but far too happy.
The center of Sabbath keeping is the glad worship of the Triune God on the Lord’s Day: remembering the New Creation and the Greater Exodus accomplished by Jesus. But that joy really should overflow into our homes and lives in joyful celebration of all His good gifts. Understood rightly and under God’s providential blessing, there is an ever-increasing cycle of gladness set off by regeneration. In Christ, we are ushered into a new creation, and whereas the Old Creation ended in a day of rest, the New Creation begins with rest. So we work out of our rest in Christ. Under God’s blessing, you can truly do more in six days than in seven. While grim fear, threats, and envy may make people scramble, only glad grace drives good work.