John Frith on the Sabbath

John Frith may not be a name which leaps to mind when contemplating the English Reformation, and yet he was one of the earliest lights of truth in England. Frith was a student first of Stephen Gardiner, then of Thomas Wolsey, but was ultimately condemned by both after his open conversion to the doctrines of Protestantism. A close companion to William Tyndale, Frith was eventually martyred – burned at the stake – his arrest warrant issued by Sir Thomas More himself.

In 1533, the year of his martyrdom, Frith published a treatise on baptism, A Mirror, or Looking Glass, wherein you may behold the sacrament of baptism described. The work is a polemic against various Roman Catholic errors regarding baptism, especially baptismal regeneration and ex opere operato. His consideration of superstition in baptism leads him to discuss the issue of religious ceremonies, and their dangers. During this discussion, he raises the issue of the Sabbath as an example of how the early church handled ceremonies.

His statements reveal a view of the Sabbath and Sabbath law that would draw accusations of antinomianism from many of our modern ‘Reformed’, and would bar him from ministry and membership in most Reformed churches. Indeed, this martyr of the English Reformation would be declared un-Reformed, and dangerous! His final conclusion – how to regard those who insist that working on Sunday is a sin even after patient instruction to the contrary – pulls no punches.

And as concerning the abrogation, or alteration of ceremonies, we have a godly example of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was instituted and commanded of God to be kept of the children of Israel. Notwithstanding, because it was a sign or a ceremony, and did signify unto them that it was God which sanctified them with his Spirit, and not themselves with their holy works; and because, also, that all ceremonies and shadows ceased when Christ came, so that they might be done or left undone indifferently; our forefathers, which were in the beginning of the church, did abrogate the Sabbath, to the intent that men might have an example of Christ’s liberty, and that they might know that neither the keeping of the Sabbath, nor of any other day, is necessary, according to Paul, Ye observe days, times, and months, I am afraid of you that I have laboured in vain towards you. Howbeit, because it was necessary that a day should be reserved, in the which the people might come together to hear the word of God, they ordained in the stead of the Sabbath, which was Saturday, the next day following, which is Sunday. And although they might have kept the Saturday with the Jews, as a thing indifferent, yet did they much better to overset the day, to be a perpetual memory that we are free and not bound to any day, but that we may do all lawful works to the pleasure of God, and profit of our neighbour. We are in manner as superstitious in the Sunday as they were in the Saturday, yea, and we are much madder. For the Jews have the word of God for their Saturday, since it is the seventh day, and they were commanded to keep the seventh day solemn; and we have not the word of God for us, but rather against us, for we keep not the seventh day as the Jews do, but the first, which is not commanded by God’s law. But Paul addeth, That no man judge us as concerning holy days, meats, and such other exterior things; yea, and in no wise will he that we observe them, counting them more holy than other days. For they were institute that the people should come together to hear God’s word, receive the sacraments, and give God thanks. That done, they may return unto their houses, and do their business as well as any other day. He that thinketh that a man sinneth which worketh on the holy day, if he be weak or ignorant, ought better to be instructed, and so to leave his hold. But if he be obstinate, and persevere in his sentence, he is not of God, but of the devil, for he maketh sin in such as God leaveth free.