The Role Of The Moral Law In Thomas Shepard’s Doctrine Of The Sabbath -- By: Curtis J. Evans

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 063:2 (Fall 2001)
Article: The Role Of The Moral Law In Thomas Shepard’s Doctrine Of The Sabbath
Author: Curtis J. Evans

The Role Of The Moral Law
In Thomas Shepard’s Doctrine Of The Sabbath

Curtis J. Evansa

In the history of Christian thought, continual debates on the role of the law .under the age of grace have led to countless splits in Christian churches. This has been a particularly acute problem in the Reformed tradition with its emphasis on the importance of law in society and its simultaneous insistence on justification by faith alone. The difficulty of reconciling free grace and “evangelical legalism” is epitomized in the work of Thomas Shepard (1605–1649) on the Sabbath day. Shepard’s Theses Sabbaticae (1649) was based on several sermons given by Shepard to his congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had also spoken on this topic in order to clear away certain doubts students had about it at Harvard College, which explains why the sermons were altered into the scholastic form of theses, or short propositions. Several fellow ministers urged Shepard to revise and enlarge his sermons for publication (a request to which he stated he reluctantly agreed). The work was published in London in 1649, the year of Shepard’s death.1

In the first part of this essay I examine the attempts of Reformed thinkers, beginning with John Calvin, to explicate the precise role of the moral law under the gospel era. It is hoped that such an analytical survey will situate Shepard’s thought within the larger context of the Reformed tradition, and hence will clarify some of the theological questions that he was addressing. The second part of this essay looks at the immediate historical circumstances of Shepard’s Theses in order to discern more clearly why Shepard felt the Sabbath would be the most appropriate means by which he could elaborate on the role of the moral law in the life of the believer.2 As a culmination of nearly a century of Reformed exegesis of relevant scriptural passages that dealt with the Old and New Covenants, Shepard’s work marks a focused restatement of the view that the moral law must continue to function as a guide for the believer even though the believer is now under grace. The Sabbath doctrine served as the occasion for this debate primarily because it was a visible reminder to Shepard

that the requirement for legalistic duties is the pathway to true spiritual freedom. Therefore, he could argue that God’s free grace is compatible with urging Christian conduct that is in conformity with the demands of the law. He saw this most manifest in the institution of the Sabbath on the first week of creation.

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