When most of us think of Lent, we immediately think about giving something up—sugar, TV, radio, you name it. Although this season is marked by abstinence, it also can be the busiest time in the church calendar. In many traditions, Lent is packed with special services and religious practices to help us focus on the life of Christ—more prayer, more devotional reading, more church services. But for what purpose?

One obvious answer: These activities help deepen our devotion to Jesus Christ. But if we're honest, we also do these things in part because we believe that they contribute to our sanctification. After all, in order to become more like Christ, you have to imitate him, right?

Amid all the devotion, however, the last thing we think of adding to our Lenten disciplines is observing the Sabbath. This is surprising, since the Bible seems to teach that rest may be the most significant and transformative activity of all.

An 'Above All' Command

It is difficult, and ironic, to imagine rest as the most transformative element in the Christian life. For evangelicals especially, transformation and sanctification are closely linked to activity. We appropriately begin with the idea that our works do not merit justification (being declared righteous by God). We can do nothing to earn our salvation. But most of us imagine we must play an active role in our sanctification, the ongoing process of becoming more like Christ. Sanctification, we assume, involves work and effort on our part.

This is good news to evangelical ears. We like activities. We conduct Bible studies, participate in small groups, and attend prayer meetings. We engage in worship services and outreach. We like inspirational books that teach us how to become better Christians. We have a sense of duty that compels us to evangelize and demonstrate Christ's love to those around us. Indeed, these activities are good and find their foundation in biblical teachings.

And this is precisely why we find it so difficult to imagine rest as the most transformative feature of the Christian life. We love those verses that emphasize disciplined activity. Yet most of us probably have never even considered that the Sabbath may be the most important "discipline." Consider this:

And the Lord said to Moses, "You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, 'Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.'"(Ex. 31:12-13, ESV used throughout)
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We may debate how the Sabbath should be observed, but we all recognize the value of taking a day of rest. However, this passage suggests features of the Sabbath we typically overlook.

For example, this passage says that the Sabbath is an "above all" command. It is as if God said, "This is the most important one!" A careful look at the context in the Book of Exodus reinforces the point.

In chapters 25 through 30, Moses received many instructions regulating Israel's worship: how to build the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, and other tabernacle furnishings; how to celebrate festivals; the duties of priests; and so forth. However, the last command Moses received from God (in chapter 31) concerned the Sabbath.

Chapter 32 then describes the incident with the golden calf; after severely chastising the people of Israel, Moses went back up Mount Sinai, where he interceded for the people and received more instructions from God. When Moses asked for God's mercy, God answered, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (33:14).

When Moses came down from the mountain a second time, he gathered the Israelites and told them everything he had received from God, starting with the Sabbath command (35:1-3). So the Sabbath command functions as a set of bookends: It was not only the last command that Moses received from God the first time around, it was also the first one Moses revealed to the people on the second pass. It seems that rest was intended to lie at the heart of Israel's religious observances—an "above all" commandment.

Living in Justification

Why is the Sabbath so important? After all, it's a command to do nothing; it requires no activity or effort. And that may be precisely the point.

This "above all" command encourages us to trust in God in a way that no other activity can. So much more could be accomplished by adding another day of labor, but the Sabbath requires us to trust that God will provide for all our needs and that he will continue to manage the world without our help. The Sabbath is a practical reminder that we are completely dependent on God.

But there is also this: "That you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you." Here rest is closely connected to sanctification. We instinctively believe our efforts and activities effectively promote personal and spiritual growth—that God is the primary agent in justification and that the individual is the primary agent in sanctification. We may need to think again.

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John Calvin said that the Holy Spirit was given to us for our transformation, and that "we are purged by [God's] sanctification." Calvin here expresses what Christians from many theological traditions affirm, that God is the primary agent in sanctification, and that the Spirit alone enables Christians to live a holy life. Though Christians perform many activities to overcome sinful habits and become more like Christ, it is the Spirit, Calvin said, who "dispenses a power whereby they may gain the upper hand and become victors in the struggle."

Similarly, pastor Tim Keller said in one interview that though sanctification requires enormous effort, it is not "works based" but rather comes by continuously "reorienting ourselves to our justification." Keller teaches that sanctification is living in accordance with our justification, which is a free gift. Therefore, even in sanctification we acknowledge that God is the primary agent, and that our works contribute nothing on their own. So in both sanctification and justification, Christians are declared righteous and are continually being made righteous solely by the free grace of God. Though we are called to be active, the "activity" seems mostly to mean the call to rest, to trust, to freely receive sanctification from God.

The Sabbath, therefore, helps us realize we completely depend on God for all our needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual.

So, can we just sit back and passively wait for some mystical experience to transform us? As Paul would say, "By no means!" God is not dependent on our doings, but like many aspects of life, he has gladly chosen to use us and our activities to transform us. Thus, the story of Israel remains significant today. Although Israel was instructed to obey God's commands in order to "be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:45), at the end of the week the only thing they had to do was relax; in the midst of their religious busyness, they were called to simply remember that God alone sanctified them. As Paul put it, "So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:7). Only God brings about our transformation. That is something we can count on, and rest in.

Kevin Emmert is editorial coordinator with Preaching Today.

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Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Resting in the Work of God," a Bible study based on this article.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles about Lent and spirituality include:

What Faith Is: Accepting Conditions | Eternity is inevitable, one way or another. We may want to get used to it. (June 9, 2011)
The Praying Pedestrian: A Lenten Discipline | How praying for my neighborhood changed it. (Her.meneutics, April 7, 2011)
Amazing Sin, How Deep We're Bound | Finding the courage to trust in grace. (May 1, 2004)
The Challenge of the Lenten Season | Evangelical Protestants are caught between freedom in Christ and sacred observance

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