The 10 Commandments

The Ten Commandments and the New Testament

Moses LawOne of the questions that needs to be addressed in any study of the Ten Commandments is that of their proper relation to the New Testament Scriptures.

Many in the church in our day seem to be under the mistaken impression that the coming of Christ has somehow rendered the law of God null and void, or at least in some way irrelevant or unnecessary.

But if you take the time to examine the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, you will find that the uniform testimony of the New Testament is such that the ten commandments have a continuing authority and relevance. They are every bit as binding and important today as they have ever been. They are still God’s standard for holiness, and they are still the summary of God’s moral will, telling us how He would have His redeemed people to live.

First, let’s start with the teachings of the Lord Jesus himself. What did Jesus have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? In what is probably His best known (or at least most famous) sermon – the “sermon on the mount” (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), Jesus actually had quite a bit to say about the law of God and the Ten Commandments.

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (ESV). When He speaks of “the Law or the Prophets” there, that is a shorthand way of referring to the entire Old Testament. So Jesus tells us right from the beginning that He had not come to do away with the Old Testament, including the Law. Rather, the reason that He came was in order to “fulfill” them.

In a sense everything that was written in the Old Testament was in some way prophetic of Christ, both his sufferings and the glory that was to follow. (See Luke 24:25-27.) And so in both His person and in His actions He fulfilled those prophecies to the letter. His atoning death for His people fulfilled the entire Old Testament sacrificial system, including the Temple, the priesthood, and even the very sacrifices themselves. All of those things were meant to point forward to the person and work of Jesus. (See Hebrews chapters 9-10.) That is why those things are no longer needed – they have served their purpose, and were never intended to be seen as an end in and of themselves.

What about the ten commandments? Did the Lord Jesus set them aside? Certainly not. Not only did He clearly tell us that He did not come to “abolish” the law (Matthew 5:17), but He also said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v.18, ESV)! He even went on to say that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.19-20, ESV).

If you read the rest of Matthew chapter 5 in particular, you will find that the bulk of that chapter actually consists of extended teaching regarding at least two of the ten commandments themselves, including those prohibiting murder (v.21-26) and adultery (v.27-30). So, in summary, Jesus himself not only perfectly obeyed the ten commandments, but He also clearly taught obedience to them as well.

The Lord Jesus expects his ministers to teach others to obey His commandments (Matthew 28:19). To be sure, no one is justified in the sight of God by their obedience to His commandments, but rather we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in order that we might obey His commandments from the heart. We are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:9), but we are saved for them (Ephesians 2:10).

What about the apostles themselves? What did they have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? Let us look in particular at what the apostle Paul had to say about the law and the ten commandments.

In the book of Romans, for example, the Apostle Paul uses one form or another of the Greek word for “law” (nomos) no less than 73 times. Clearly he had a lot to say about the law of God, even in a book that is primarily about the gospel (Romans 1:16).

There he says that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12, ESV). He even says that the law is “spiritual” (7:14) and “good” (7:16). Clearly Paul had a very high view of the law of God (as he did of all of Scripture), even after coming to faith in Christ for salvation.

What about the Ten Commandments in particular? In Romans 7:7 he says, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet” (ESV). In other words, God’s righteous commandment revealed Paul’s sin to him, and so also revealed to him his need for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!

Elsewhere, in Ephesians 6:1, Paul gives a command, saying, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (ESV) And on what does he base this command? How does he prove that “this is right” (v.1) for them to do so? He quotes the 5th commandment. He reminds us that the law of God says, “Honor your father and mother” (v.2), which is a direct quotation from Exodus 20:12.

That alone should give pause to those in the church who would say that the law of God (especially the Ten Commandments) no longer applies to believers today. Nothing could be further from the truth! The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God for His people. They are still a reflection of God’s own holiness and perfections. He cannot change, and so that does not change either!

But Paul doesn’t stop there, does he? He reminds us that “this is the first commandment with a promise” (v.2), and then actually quotes and interprets the promise that God Himself annexed to the 5th commandment, saying, “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (v.3, Exodus 20:12). So the commandment, of course, still applies, and not only that, but God’s promise of blessing and reward still applies as well!

How about the Apostle John? He has much to say about keeping God’s commandments. In fact, he equates love for God with keeping His commandments. In 1 John 5:3 he writes,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (ESV)

Love and law are not contrary to each other – quite the opposite! If we love God, we will love His law as well, like David did (Psalm 119:97), and make it our aim in life to willingly keep His commandments, rather than seeing them as “burdensome.”

God has certainly not changed (and indeed cannot!), nor has his moral will for the lives of his redeemed people. The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God; they are still of great use to the believer in Christ; and God still promises blessing to His children for obeying His commandments. Of these things let us be sure that the New Testament Scriptures are abundantly clear.

A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Law and Love

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315Many in our day seem to pit law and love against each other, as if love somehow renders the law of God unnecessary, or as if rules and relationships (or loving ones anyway)  were mutual exclusive. But is this the biblical way of looking at it? What is the right way to view the relationship between law (specifically the ten commandments) and love?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“In fact love was always at the heart of God’s law. It was given by love to be received in love and obeyed through love. The divine commandments could be summed up in the great commandment to love God with heart, soul, and strength. Thus Jesus himself teaches that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Paul adds that rather than nullify[ing] the law the gospel strengthens it. Moreover specific laws from the Decalogue are almost casually sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Not only does love not abolish the law, but the law commands love!” (p.162-163)

Even in the very text of the ten commandments themselves this is explicitly stated. Look at the text of the 2nd commandment (as stated in Exodus 20:4-6):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ESV, italics mine)

Those who commit the sin of idolatry are said to “hate” God. Why? Because they commit idolatry. In other words, if they truly loved God, they would not commit idolatry (or have other Gods before Him, or take His name in vain, etc.). Love, in many ways, is defined by its actions. So while love certainly involves more than our outward actions (i.e. it includes right motives), it does not involve less than our outward actions (i.e. it doesn’t render them meaningless or unnecessary).

And how does God Himself describe those who love Him? As those who “love me and keep my commandments” (v.6). So love and commandment-keeping go together – and they always have. And (as the saying goes), what God has joined together, let no man separate.

J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.

What Is Forbidden in the 4th Commandment? (SHORTER CATECHISM Q.61)

1710_largeIn our brief series of posts examining what the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches regarding the Sabbath, we now come to  Q.61, which asks:

“What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?”

What is positively required by the commandment was dealt with at length in the previous three questions (Q.58-60). Now we see the flip side, so to speak – what we are not to do on the Lord’s day. The catechism’s answer to the above question is as follows:

“The fourth commandment forbids the omission, or careless performance, of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”

So the first thing that is forbidden is the “omission . . .of the duties required.” Blatant disregard for the Sabbath and for worship (both public and private) is in view here. We must not neglect to observe the holy rest and worship that is required. (See Q.60.) This happens, for instance, when we fail to faithfully attend public worship on the Lord’s day. This is what the writer of the book of Hebrews admonishes us about:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV, italics mine)

‘Neglecting to meet together’ in public worship is all too common in our day, but apparently that is nothing new. Even back in the first century that was already “the habit of some” (v.25). For various reasons some professing believers simply don’t make it a priority. Some attend worship once or twice a year (around Easter or Christmas), and consider that sufficient to fulfill their obligation. This should not be. If this describes you, consider the words of the 4th commandment as well as Hebrews 10:25, and take those words to heart. Don’t waste your Sundays on lesser things.

Lest we content ourselves with mere church attendance, the second thing that we are told is forbidden here is the “careless performance” of the duties required. We are guilty of this when we go through the motions (even the correct motions, so to speak!) in worship. In others words, just showing up is a good start, but it is not enough. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in what we are doing. This is the kind of thing that is spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah:

” . . . this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13, ESV)

They said all the right things, but it was all just for show; their hearts were not truly into it. How often do we commit similar sins in worship? How often do we say, pray, or sing all the right things, while our hearts are far from God? Probably far more often than most of us would like to admit. There is often much to be repented of and forgiven even in our worship!

The third thing that is forbidden in the 4th commandment is “profaning the day.” What does it mean to “profane” the day? Q.61 outlines a number of the ways that we might do so. The first of those is simply “idleness.” A day of holy rest is not a day of inactivity; it is not intended to be a wasted day!

Another way to profane the day is by doing that which is inherently sinful. Of course, that holds true for every day of the week, but you could say that the offense is aggravated or made worse by doing those things on the Lord’s day! We are certainly not supposed to live wickedly Monday through Saturday, while saving our holiness for Sundays (or for an hour or two on Sundays) – that is rightly called hypocrisy. But we should be especially mindful of resting from our evil works on Sundays.

The last way of profaning the Lord’s day that the Shorter Catechism mentions is “unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”  What does that entail?  One obvious example comes to mind – watching sports on Sundays.  Assuming (I hope) that we don’t just skip church altogether for the sake of watching our favorite NFL team, do we hurry home from church on Sundays so that we can watch the game? Or, perhaps I refrain from watching my favorite football team (yes, the Eagles) on Sundays, but do I still find myself checking on the score or following the game online? (Guilty as charged, at times.) Do we spend our time discussing work-related things unnecessarily?

Does that sound like an impossible standard to try to live up to? Does it sound unattainable? Sure it does. But what are we to do about that fact? Are we to throw our hands up in the air and give up on making any sincere or serious effort at obeying the law of God in these things? Certainly not. You would never dare to apply that logic to the commandment against adultery, would you? (I sincerely hope not.) Would you call someone a “legalist” because he or she took the implications of the 7th commandment seriously, and sought (however imperfectly) to refrain even from lustful thoughts? Of course not, right? Well, the same principles clearly apply to the 4th commandment!

So what are we to do? If need be, we must repent of our transgressions of the 4th commandment. If you have neglected the gathering together of the Lord’s people for public worship, resolve by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so no longer. Make worship on the Lord’s day your priority. And seek to delight in it as well (Isaiah 58:13). That is something that may take some time to cultivate and learn; and it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. But it is well worth the time and effort required.

John Owen on Obedience as Sons

owen-communion-with-god-2It should go without saying that believers in Christ have an obligation to obey God’s commandments. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament provides more than ample evidence of this truth.

Read through the Gospels, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands. There you will often find the Lord Jesus quoting, explaining, and applying the commandments to His hearers. A lengthy section in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) explicitly deals with a right view of God’s commandments.

Read through the Epistles, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands, even citations and quotations from the ten commandments. There is not the slightest hint that God’s moral law as expressed in the ten commandments has somehow been set aside or abrogated.

For just one such example, both the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul taught the continuing validity and importance of obedience to the 5th commandment. (See Mark 7:8-13; Ephesians 6:1-3.) Honoring one’s father and mother is still a basic and essential part of the life that God’s redeemed people are expected (commanded!) to live. That has not changed.

The gospel of Christ has not reduced or done away with our obligation to obey God’s commands. In fact, quite the opposite is true! The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God, tells us the following:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5, italics mine)

So in the gospel of Christ we have even more reason (not less) to obey God’s law! Christ, in the gospel, ‘much strengthens’ our obligation to obey. (When was the last time you heard anything like that in a sermon?)

But what does such obedience look like? What is the essence of truly Christian obedience? In his book, Communion With God, the English Puritan writer John Owen (1616-1683) offers a helpful (and thoroughly biblical) analogy:

“Slaves find freedom when released from their duties. Children find their freedom in doing their duty. There is no greater mistake in the world than the idea that the freedom of sons in God’s house lies in choosing whether they will obey or not, whether they will do their duty or not. This is a freedom stolen by slaves, not a liberty given by the Spirit to sons.

“The liberty of sons is in the inward spiritual freedom of their hearts gladly and willingly obeying God in everything.” (p.160)

In Christ we are not freed from obeying God’s law, but rather for obeying it! The “liberty given by the Spirit to sons” (to use Owen’s phrase) leads us to obey God as sons, not slaves. Sons obey their heavenly Father out of love and gratitude, not out of slavish fear or for the expectation of wages, as a hired hand. As 1 John 5:3 says,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

We are to keep the commandments out of love for our heavenly Father. And in Christ, by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are both enabled and led to truly love and obey God for the first time. As sons we may at times find keeping His commandments difficult, but not burdensome. And that is because, as sons, we no longer view God as a tyrant, or as a difficult taskmaster, but as our heavenly Father!

THE SABBATH: HOLY REST AND WORSHIP (SHORTER CATECHISM Q.60)

shorter-catechism-explainedThis is part 4 of a brief series of posts going through what the Westminster Shorter Catechism (in Q.57-62) has to say about the 4th commandment. Question and answer #57 deals with the actual text of the commandment itself (which is found in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The questions that follow explain and interpret the meaning of the commandment.

Question and answer #58 deals with the question of what – the substance of what is required in the fourth commandment – keeping one day in seven holy unto God. Question and answer 59 deals with the question of when – which day of the seven is now to be sanctified.

We now come to question and answer #60, which asks the all-important question – how? What exactly does it mean to sanctify the Sabbath or keep it holy?

Q.60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

So according to the Shorter Catechism, sanctifying the Sabbath involves at least two (2) things: holy rest and worship.  In his book, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, Puritan writer Thomas Vincent (1634-1678) puts it this way:

“We are to observe and keep the Sabbath as holy, partly by a holy resting, partly in holy exercises on that day.” (p.146)

Vincent there shows us the balance that we must keep between those two things, as well as the right relationship between them. Let us then briefly turn to look at them in order.

First the Sabbath (or Lord’s day) is to be sanctified “by a holy resting all the day.” Not just rest, but a holy rest. So it is clear right at the outset that what is in view here is not mere inactivity or sleep. So what does this holy resting entail? We are to rest “all that day” (not just for an hour or two) from two (2) things: our “worldly employments” (i.e. our work), and our “recreations” (i.e. our play).

And the point here is certainly not just that we are to refrain from sinful work and recreation, as we are always to refrain from those things no matter which day of the week it may be. No, the writers of the Catechism explicitly state that we are to rest from even those employments and recreations “as are lawful on other days.” So we are not to treat the Lord’s day like any other day, whether that be for work or for play.

Some people might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another work day, another day to labor and make money. Time (as the saying goes) is money, and so for some people, a holy resting all the day sounds costly, rather than beneficial. And so such people may need to learn to trust in God’s provision. Is that not the lesson we are to learn from God’s instructions regarding the manna in the wilderness in Exodus chapter 16? There was one day in the week when the manna would not appear – the Sabbath. Exodus 16:26 states, “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” The only day that the people of Israel were allowed to gather extra to save for the next day was on the 6th day. Why? To free them up to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Even gathering food (manna) was not to be done on the Sabbath.

Others might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another day off, another day to play and have fun. Such people may need to learn to enjoy God more. (And who among us doesn’t need to learn that more?) To use a personal example, I like sports. I enjoy watching some sports on television and occasionally even in-person. (As a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, my sports fandom is often more an exercise in patience and long-suffering than of celebrating championship parades, but I digress.)

Nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional game. But that being said, if I enjoy watching (for example) a football game (yes, even the Super Bowl) more than I enjoy spending time with the Lord and His people in worship, then both my priorities and tastes are out of whack.  Again, nothing wrong with sports or entertainment per se (as long as there is nothing inherently sinful involved), but those things should not be in any position to compete for our ultimate affection and enjoyment. And we are to rest from those things on the Lord’s day for our own good.

And that brings us to the second thing that sanctifying the Sabbath involves – worship. The Sabbath is to be sanctified, not just by a holy resting from worldly employments and recreations, but also by “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” The whole time. And so the former is for the purpose of the latter. In the 4th commandment we are essentially being given a break from our worldly activities in order to free us up for worship.

Now if the first part (the holy resting) seems foreign to most people (even most Christians?) in our day, almost certainly this part (spending the whole day in the worship of God) is even more so. One need only look at the rarity of the Sunday evening worship service in our day to see something of a barometer of that. Structuring the whole day around worship seems like a nearly forgotten art. Sadly, many who were not raised in the Reformed faith (myself included) have had to learn much of this the hard way, with very little in the way of an example to emulate. This was not always the case.

Notice that the worship of God that is commended to us here is both public (corporate) and private (personal and with our family). And so we should make attendance upon public worship perhaps the highest priority of the day, although that by no means excludes time spent alone or with one’s family in prayer, the study of God’s Word, and even song (!). The latter is often closely-related to the former, with time spent considering and discussing the sermon from earlier that day. (How much more might we benefit from even the simplest preaching of the Word if we were to make that our practice!)  And here we also see that private worship is no substitute for diligently attending public worship of the church on the Lord’s day. In truth it should not be an either/or proposition.

That might sound like a rather daunting task. Surely there are things that cannot be left undone, even on Sundays, right? And that is where the common-sense exceptions to the rule come into view here in Q.60. It states that the whole time is to be spent in public and private worship “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” One’s family still needs to eat, for example. The sick or injured must still be cared for. Someone in need must still be shown mercy. (In truth, the Lord’s day may actually provide us with more time and opportunity for this than other days.) And there are occupations or lawful callings in which people cannot reasonably be expected to take the whole day off from their work, which is necessary for the life, safety, and well-being of their neighbors (such as law enforcement, military, or medical personnel, just to name a few).

There is obviously much more that could be said, but I hope that you find this thumbnail sketch from the Shorter Catechism to be a helpful starting point, and perhaps something that may spur you on to more careful study and application of what the Scriptures have to say on this important subject. May we all learn to view this holy rest and worship, not as a burden, but as a blessing.