Was Eric Liddell a Legalist?

Chariots of Fire is undoubtedly one of my favorite movies. It tells the story of two runners who competed in the 19liddell-chariots-daughter24 Paris Olympics. One of those runners was a man by the name of Eric Liddell, a man dubbed the “Flying Scotsman” because of his nationality and astounding speed. But in addition to being a superlative runner and all around athlete, Eric Liddell was a man of deep Christian convictions. The son of missionaries, born in China, Eric’s vision was always to return to the mission field to do the essential work of spreading the gospel. But Eric also felt that God had given him a great gift in his athletic abilities and he was determined to put these gifts to good use. To that end he trained hard for the Olympics in the event in which he had already set a record in Britain – the 100-meter dash. But when he arrived in Paris, he found to his dismay that the race he had been preparing to compete in, the 100-meter dash had been set for Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. Eric quietly but firmly informed his country and his teammates that he would not run on Sunday and thus break the Sabbath.

His stand brought outrage throughout Britain. His countrymen widely believed that by refusing to run he was betraying his country and eliminating their best chance to win the Gold medal in this event. Eric tenaciously weathered the condemnation of both the press and his countrymen, and stuck to his guns. Even when the Prince of Wales, his earthly sovereign, appealed to him to run for king and country he pointed out that if serving king and country meant disobeying God, he could not do so. The Sunday of the race, in keeping with his convictions Eric was not on the track, he was in Church and not surprisingly it was the Americans and not the British who took the medal in the 100-meter dash.

A few days later, Eric competed in the 400-meter dash, a race he had not prepared for, and which was 4 times the distance of his best event. Just prior to the race, an America runner by the name of Charlie Paddock handed Eric a scrap of paper. On it he had written a paraphrase of 1 Sam. 2:30, it read “The Good Book says ‘He who honors me, I will honor’.” Clutching that piece of paper, Eric Liddell went on to win the 400 meter dash, and set a new world record in the process.

So, was Eric Liddell what Christians today would call a legalist? Someone similar in convictions to the Pharisees who persecuted Christ and misused the law of God? In order to find the answer to that question, let’s take a close look at the first 8 verses of Matthew chapter 12.

1At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.
2When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?
4He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread–which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.
5Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?
6I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.
7If you had known what these words mean, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.
8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

In the first verse of Chapter 12 we see Christ and his disciples passing through the grain fields. The Season was probably the late spring just prior to the harvest when the grain was ripe. The disciples were hungry, and because they had no food as they passed through the long rows of grain they broke off a few heads and after rubbing the grain from the husk, they ate it. In doing so, they were not stealing from the owner of the field. Deuteronomy 23:25 had made provision for the poor saying “If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain.” Any of you who have ever seen a grain field will know that allowing the poor to break off a few heads of grain is not going to lead to any monetary loss. The disciples were poor and hungry, and although Christ could have used his miraculous powers to provide food for his disciples he did not do so. As Spurgeon points out, Christ was not going to bribe anyone to become his disciple, to serve Christ was not then, nor has it ever been an easy thing.

But it was not the fact that the disciples were taking from the standing grain that offended the Pharisees, it was the day on which they were doing it. The Pharisees considered what the disciples were doing to be unlawful on the Sabbath. This was because the Pharisees had developed a precise code of regulations that set out no less than 39 different kinds of “work” that they felt constituted a violation of the Sabbath. These restrictions were so detailed that they governed exactly how much a man might put in his pocket before he broke the Sabbath by carrying a burden. The intent of the Pharisaic restrictions was to create a “hedge” around the Sabbath so that men would be dissuaded from breaking it. These restrictions made the disciples picking of grain “reaping”, and the rubbing of the grain from the husk “threshing”. Thus in their eyes the disciples were breaking the Sabbath by working.

But the rank hypocrisy of the Pharisees should be readily apparent. How were these super-pious servants of God observing the Sabbath? By keeping a watch over Christ and His Apostles to see if they might find something to accuse Him with! And once they had observed a violation of their rules, they wasted no time in laying the crimes of the disciples at the feet of their teacher.
How then does Christ answer the accusations of the Pharisees? Does Jesus tell the Pharisees that the observance of the Sabbath day has been done away with, and thus His disciples are no longer constrained to abide by it? No. Christ does not do that here or anywhere else in the gospels. Instead our Lord proves from the Scriptures that his disciples were not violating the Sabbath by their actions, but only the false restrictions of the Pharisees regarding it.

With their accretions and additions the Pharisees had taken a day that was intended to be a blessing to men and had made it into a burden. The Disciples had picked grain because they were hungry and had nothing to eat, and Jesus immediately draws a parallel between their actions and those of David when he and his men were in similar straits. He asks the Pharisees in Matthew 12:3 if they have read what David and his men did when they too were hungry. They entered into the Temple and ate the shew bread which was not normally lawful for them to do as only the Priests could eat this bread after a new set of loaves had been set out. What Christ is emphasizing with this example is that God never intended His law to be used as excuse for not doing deeds of necessity or mercy. Had David and his men eaten the consecrated bread out of bravado, or levity, or simply to thumb their noses at God, that would have been a grave sin, but that was not their intention. David and his men had an urgent need, and the law of God was never intended to be construed as compelling men to starve. In the same way, the Sabbath should not be construed as requiring that the disciples go hungry and become faint in order to abide by the made-up rules of the Pharisees. The Pharisees did not stop to consider, and it is doubtful whether they cared, how well an extremely hungry man could concentrate on keeping the Sabbath “Holy Unto the Lord.”

But the observance of minutia and the neglect of that which is truly important has always been the emphasis of religious hypocrites. The Pharisees were constantly guilty of observing the tiniest portions of the law in great detail, while ignoring that which the Lord truly wanted. This was the point Christ was making when he quoted a verse from Malachi to them, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” No law or commandment of God is to be so twisted that it makes us neglect our clear duties of charity and necessity. We are never to interpret our duties to God expressed in the first table of the Ten Commandments in such a way that we end up breaking our duties to man expressed in the second table. The fourth commandment which tells us to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” is never to be interpreted in such a way that we are made unkind and unmerciful to our neighbors. The Pharisees and religious hypocrites were constantly guilty of perverting the law of God in this fashion, for instance, by declaring that their property was dedicated to God they found an excuse for not providing for their parents and by not wishing to expose themselves to the possibility of becoming ceremonially unclean by touching a dead man, the Levite and the Priest were able to pass by on the other side road and ignore their duty to the man who had been beaten and left for dead by robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).

Now if the problems of the Pharisees were the problems of the Christian community today, then the rest of this essay would be markedly different. I would go on to emphasize the foolishness of placing man-made rules over our God-given duties, or of interpreting the law of God in such a way that by keeping the letter of the law we end up violating the spirit of it. But, by and large, our problems with the Sabbath are not those of the Pharisees, we have not forgotten that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Instead we are generally guilty of dismissing the importance of the Lord’s day altogether! Thousands of Christians have come to the conclusion that the fourth commandment has been abrogated – done away with entirely – when nothing that we read in the New Testament justifies that conclusion. Certainly Christ did not tear the fourth commandment out of the Decalogue and announce that we now only have nine commandments to abide by.

Jesus did not abolish the law of the weekly Sabbath; he purified it from man-made additions and sinful interpretations. Christ put the Sabbath where it belonged – subordinate to His Lordship.

There are some who try to eliminate the Sabbath by saying that it was specifically Jewish, and merely part of the Ceremonial law, consequently, they maintain that the Sabbath passed away when the ceremonial law was fulfilled by Christ. But the Sabbath is a CREATION ordinance; God instituted it long before the ceremonial laws came into existence. To quote John Murray: “The sequence for man of six days of labour and one day of rest is patterned after the sequence that God followed in the grand scheme of His creative work.” The fact that this scheme is part of the Moral law and not the Ceremonial law is further reinforced by the fact that it was included by God in the Ten Commandments. God is not the author of confusion, he did not include one Ceremonial law destined to pass away in the midst of a group of moral laws that never expire.

The Ceremonial and Judicial laws that passed away are those which have reached fruition. They were shadows that were fulfilled when the reality they pointed to – Jesus Christ – appeared, or when the state for whose governance they were intended – Israel – passed away. They were akin to the photographs of families and loved ones that we take with us when we are far away from them. We may contemplate or even lovingly hold these images, but when the reality of those loved ones is present we no longer retire to our rooms to contemplate the images. Calvin compared these ceremonial laws to candles – dim lights – while Christ is like the Sun. A man does not light a candle at midday.

The pattern of one day in six set apart to the Lord has not expired, however. The writer of Hebrews tells us “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” Please turn with me to (Hebrews 4:9-11.) Here and elsewhere Hebrews teaches us that the weekly Sabbath points to the final rest anticipated by God at Creation, and secured by the redemptive work of Christ. This final or eschatological rest-order will not be finally entered into by the people of God until Christ’s return.

We’ve seen in the example of the Pharisees, how the Sabbath can be abused under the pretense of sanctifying it. But how then should Christians keep the Lord’s Day holy? To begin with, we should note well that Christ proves that certain types of work are permissible on the Sabbath:

First, we have works of piety – those works that must be done in order for God to be worshipped.

Christ tells us in verse 5 of Matthew 12 that the priests who worked in the Temple on the Sabbath day were not breaking the Sabbath. In the same way those involved in the ministry are not guilty of violating the Sabbath even though they work on the Sabbath and receive payment for doing so.

Secondly, we have works of necessity – those works that cannot be delayed without harm to life or property, this would include things like rescuing a sheep from a pit, feeding livestock, putting out a fire, stopping a crime, or even defending a nation.

Thirdly, we have works of Mercy – these are acts of mercy or kindness to a person who is sick, distressed, hungry or in need. They would include ministering to someone who was injured, or feeding someone who was hungry, or even consoling those who mourn.

Christians are never to rest from doing GOOD. We should never use the fourth commandment as an excuse for neglecting our Christian duties and in this we are given the supreme example of Christ. God’s Sabbath rest began when creation was finished, but man’s sin and misery required that this Sabbath be interrupted in order to redeem man from this condition. Christ then performed that awesome work of redemption – which was the ultimate deed of necessity and mercy – during the Sabbath rest of God.

But given that the basic meaning of the word Sabbath is cessation it is clear that there are some things that Christians should cease from doing on the Sabbath. What then should we cease from doing on the Sabbath? Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession answers this question by summarizing the teaching of scripture on the subject:

VIII. This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

On the Lord’s Day we cease from performing our work, but we do not merely cease from performing our work so that we might continue our favorite recreations unencumbered by employment. It means we rest from all the things that engross us during the other days of the week whether it is employment OR recreation. We do not set these enjoyments aside because they are not proper to the Christian life, we set them aside because the Sabbath is to be devoted to exclusively to the worship of God, the reading of God’s word, and for other works of piety, necessity, and mercy.

Please do not confuse works of necessity with works of convenience. It is a work of necessity for a Doctor to attend to a patient on Sunday, or for a fire fighter to put out a fire, or for a policeman to respond to an emergency call. It is not a work of necessity to work on Sunday because otherwise you won’t get a promotion, or receive a raise, or even if your job requires that you work on Sunday simply because all the other stores are open on Sunday. Unless the work itself is a necessity, then working on that day is not a deed of necessity. The vast majority of stores and business that stay open on Sunday are flagrantly violating the Sabbath, if Christians choose to work for them on the Lord’s day, then they join them in breaking the Sabbath, and for this there is simply no excuse.

Some people consider this to be an unfair imposition on their time, but consider well: God, your Creator, your Sustainer, and — if you have faith in Christ — your Merciful Redeemer gives you 144 hours each week to do with as you will. He only commands that 1/7th of your week be devoted exclusively to Him. What man can honestly say that 1/7th is too much to ask, especially when we are the ones who benefit so greatly from observing a Sabbath rest? It is not God who will grow in grace, truth, and peace and rest in mind and body on the Sabbath, but His worshipers! If, on the other hand, you truly consider playing sports or doing business to be of greater importance than honoring God, then consider what or who it is you really serve.

So let us now turn our attention once again to Eric Liddell, how shall we answer the question that was originally posed? Was Liddell just a legalist, some sort of modern-day Pharisee? The Bible’s answer is a resounding NO.

Even though it was the Olympics, the pinnacle of human athletic achievement, Eric Liddell understood that running that race was less important than running THE RACE (Hebrews 12:1, 1 Cor. 9:24). He understood that obeying the Lord of his nation must come second if it meant disobeying the Lord of all nations. Eric Liddell described the Christian life as, “complete surrender.” In fact, years later, as Eric Liddell lay dying in a Japanese concentration camp in China, those were his last words to his nurse, “It’s complete surrender.” Eric Liddell understood that complete surrender to Christ is total victory.

Does complete surrender describe your Christian walk? Have you surrendered your Sunday to the Lord of the Sabbath, or are you still holding on to it? If so, I beg you to let it go. You will find that in giving it up to him, you receive back a day made infinitely more precious, and of far greater value to you than it ever had when it was yours. And if you haven’t yet seen Chariots of Fire, it’s high time you did!


About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
This entry was posted in Old School Presbyterian Churches, Sports, The Lord's Day, The Means of Grace, The Sabbath, Worship and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Was Eric Liddell a Legalist?

  1. CMJwyrd says:

    Reblogged this on Things I Discuss With My Cats and commented:
    I remember the movie coming out, but I didn’t remember how it turned out.

  2. In today’s environment anyone who quotes John 14:21 is a legalist!

  3. Michael Snow says:

    In our day, most Christians cannont even name the Ten Commandments in any order or form.

    We not only have no personal concern for observing the Sabbath. We don’t even think of how our disobediece affects the sabbath of others. The commandment was not just about us, but also about giving those who serve us rest.

    If Christians had been true salt and light, we would not be living in a 24/7 America.

    And we don’t even find the time to teach our own children the commandments. https://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/teaching-children-the-ten-commandments/

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