How Should We Use the Ten Commandments in Worship?
I am regularly asked what I think about the tradition followed by many Reformed churches of reading the Ten Commandments in worship every Sunday morning. As a means of answering that question, let me offer a few thoughts here.
First a few preliminary observations:
- It is important to remember that giving the Ten Commandments so much emphasis in Christian ethics (let alone Christian worship) is a relatively modern phenomena in church history. It was not a practice followed by the early church (see here and here). It is indelibly tied up with the emergence of Christendom.
- It is worth noting that among Reformed churches the Ten Commandments are used in various ways. Sometimes they are read according to the first use of the law (i.e., as a teacher of sin to drive us to Christ), to be followed by a corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness. At other times they are read according to the third use of the law (i.e., to teach us about God’s moral law as a means of serving him in gratitude for our salvation), following the corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness.
- It is safe to say that the people in the pews often don’t understand the significance of how the law is functioning. Based on conversations I’ve had with many people over the years, regardless of where it is used in the service, many people have the impression – fostered in part by the practice of simply reading the law in worship without explanation or commentary – that Christians are, in fact, under the law, with the weight of its promises and threats hanging over them.
So what do I make of this practice? I believe most Reformed churches do not read nearly enough scripture in their services. Worship should be saturated with scripture – in the prayers, the songs, the sermons, and the liturgy in general. How else will Christians learn to take scripture seriously, and how else can we be confident that our worship is the sort that God desires?
On the other hand, scripture should not be read at random, without explanation or commentary as to its role. For instance, it would be inappropriate to read a passage requiring various sacrifices from Leviticus without making it clear that this passage does not bind Christians. Similarly, it would be inappropriate to read a passage warning of God’s judgment upon sin without accompanying that with some sort of proclamation of the gospel.
How does this apply to the reading of the Ten Commandments in worship? I am a strong believer in the value of a “covenant renewal” portion of a service, an exercise where the congregation can confess its sins and hear God’s assurance of forgiveness. What I would suggest is that the Ten Commandments, like many other passages, can play a valuable role in this part of the service. Given their role in scripture as the paradigmatic expression of the law, I think the Ten Commandments are most naturally read according to the first use of the law, before the confession of sin. This enables the congregation to hear the curses found in the law, confess its sins, and then hear the gospel as the true paradigm for the Christian life. A healthy practice is then to read a gospel-based passage that calls Christians to conformity to Christ, such as Colossians 3, Romans 6, or Romans 12. This helps Christians to grasp the fact that although they are not under the law, the gospel itself empowers them for Christlike service.
This is my preference, though I should say that there are many other passages from the law I like to read before the confession of sin (for instance, Psalm 15, or Deuteronomy 27:15-26), and I think it is dangerous for any congregation to get into a rut – falling into the reading of the same passages over and over such that they lose their meaning to the congregation.
I do appreciate the fact that the Ten Commandments can also be read according to the third use of the law, after the assurance of forgiveness. However, given that this use does not reflect the covenantal function of the Ten Commandments in their scriptural context, I would argue that it needs extra clarification on the part of the pastor or liturgist. The pastor needs to observe, when reading the Ten Commandments in this way, that Christians are not under the law as were the Israelites who first heard the Decalogue, but that we can still learn from it and be reminded of God’s moral will from it as long as we read it in light of what Christ has done. For instance, Christians need to be taught that we will not necessarily receive earthly blessing by keeping this law, nor are we under the covenantal wrath of God where we fall short. Likewise, it needs to be clarified that we are not obligated to cease from work every Saturday because the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. In short, if we are using the Ten Commandments according to the spiritual (i.e., third) use of the law, according to 2 Timothy 3:16, and not according to its Old Testament function with its blessings and curses, we need to explain that.
My primary emphases, then, would be:
- Use a variety of scripture passages in worship. There are so many excellent ones out there that we never use. Why do so many churches use the Ten Commandments all the time?
- As much as possible, allow the passages you read to function in the service in a way that communicates their covenantal role in scripture. Use law passages in a law way, gospel passages in a gospel way, sanctification passages in a sanctification way, etc. This will help your congregation better understand how to read, interpret, and follow scripture in their own lives.
- Where you depart from this usage, make sure you explain it to your congregation. Do not assume that your hearers understand the gospel and the way it radically alters our use of the law.
- Make sure that the ultimate thrust of your service is always to drive people to Christ, and not simply that they might know that their sins are forgiven, but that they might embrace the call of discipleship, to take up their cross and follow him.