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Should Christians “obey the law”?

My series of posts on the law during the past few weeks (starting here) have sparked some healthy and welcome discussion in various places. I’ve already addressed some of the questions that arise regarding the third use of the law, Jesus’ teaching about the law in the Sermon on the Mount, and the use of the Ten Commandments in Christian worship. Here I want to address a fourth follow-up question. Here’s how one questioner put it:

It would seem to me problematic, however, to say that Christians are not bound in any sense to obey the law – for instance, breaking the commandments against murder or theft would clearly be a sin for a Christian. So, while the focus of the Christian life is not obedience to the law, surely obedience to the law is a necessary part of the Christian life. Thus, my question is whether it is appropriate to speak of Christians being bound by, or obeying the law in any sense?

It’s an excellent question, one made all the more difficult to answer by declarations like this from the Apostle Paul:

Or do you not know, brothers and sisters – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? … But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:1, 6)

Let me start by saying that the primary object of our obedience is God, not the law. Run a word search on the word ‘obey’ in the New Testament and you will find this to be the case. Still, it is also the case that we are to obey God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” (John 14:15), and the Apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:2-3)

The question is, does the New Testament equate God’s commandments with the law? James comes the closest to doing so when he writes that a person who commits adultery or murder becomes a “transgressor of the law,” and he says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10-11). At first glance this seems to run directly contrary to the way Paul consistently talks about the law. For instance, in Galatians Paul uses precisely the same point to emphasize that Christians are not under the law. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4).

Did James support the Judaizers? Did he somehow renege on his support for the decision of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), over which he presided, that the Gentiles were not bound to observe the whole law? That is highly doubtful, and in fact, James’s argument in his letter suggests greater nuance than at first meets the eye. For James does not typically refer to the law without qualification. Rather, as he puts it in James 2:12, Christians are to “speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.”

It’s hard to know exactly what James means to accomplish by adding the phrase “of liberty,” because he does not explain his use of the term. But it seems likely that either 1) he uses the term to remind us that we are not in fact under the law nor bound by all of its decrees, but only by some of them (i.e., the Ten Commandments), or 2) he is using the phrase to remind us that we are subject to the law in a non-covenantal way, a free way, along the lines of what the Reformed tradition has traditionally meant by the third use of the law. I think the latter is more likely.

So where does this leave us? It suggests that when Christians read the law we come to it in a spirit of liberty – of freedom from the law – but nevertheless with a heavy dose of respect, since the law remains profitable for correction, rebuke, instruction, etc. (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, we still learn from it something about God’s will, what Christian theology has traditionally called God’s “moral law.” And given that we are called to obey God’s will, we are called to obey his will wherever it is revealed, including in that law as it is rightly interpreted through Christ. That’s what it would mean to speak rightly of obeying God’s law, and that’s why we can say that when we murder, or commit adultery, we transgress the law. The point is not that we are now under the law once again, but that we have transgressed against its teaching regarding the will of God.

Is this how the New Testament ordinarily speaks? No, and that should give us great caution. I believe there is tremendous value in using the language the New Testament tends to use and approaching ethics the way the New Testament tends to approach ethics. Still, as long as we understand what we are saying, there is no reason why we could not speak this way. My chief concern is that we often do not understand what we are saying, and that even when we do, our hearers do not.

There is, then, a right way to incorporate the Ten Commandments into our preaching according to the third use of the law, which is why I, for instance, will be preaching this Sunday on the sixth commandment, You shall not murder, through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-26. Christ came to fulfill the law and it is the moral substance of the law as fulfilled in Christ that God is writing on our hearts by his Spirit (Hebrews 8:10). David Murray captures this way of approaching the Ten Commandments in his recent blog post on the Ten Pleasures. Christians come to the law in a spirit of liberty, delighting to obey God’s will as revealed there, and as interpreted in light of Christ. That’s how we fulfill the law.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

What Did Jesus Mean By “the Least of these Commandments” (Matthew 5:19)?

A second objection sometimes raised when I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not conformity to the law (see my previous articles on the law here), is taken from Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount 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” (Matthew 5:19). It is sometimes paired with Jesus declaration in John 14:15, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And it is assumed that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” or “my commandments” he is talking about the Mosaic Law, or at least about the Ten Commandments.

But that is clearly not the case.

Take a look at the Sermon on the Mount again. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, as is well known, by proclaiming the blessings of the kingdom of God and calling his disciples to be salt and light in the world. Then, knowing that his hearers will find his teachings radical and fresh, especially in comparison with the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law, he clarifies that he is not overturning the Law and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament) but fulfilling them. In other words, his hearers ought not to play the novelty of his words off against the Old Testament, as if the Law and the Prophets were the final and complete revelation of God. Rather, as the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is the greater revelation, the one to whom true followers of the law must now listen. In short, if you claim to want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you must follow Jesus.

Consider Jesus’ words in this light:

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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore 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. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Theonomists like Greg Bahnsen claimed that when Jesus spoke of “these commandments” he was referring to all the commandments of the Mosaic Law, and many of us have heard this claim so many times that, no matter how contrary to the rest of the New Testament it seems (think of Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 2:15 that in his work Christ was “abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances”), we have trouble reading the text any other way.

And yet, interpreted in context, it is clear that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” he is speaking of “these my commandments,” as in, “these commandments that you are hearing from me right now.”

Ask yourself, why does Jesus even find it necessary to clarify that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets? Because when his hearers hear his teaching, so different from that of the scribes and Pharisees (the teachers of the law), they will assume just that. After all, Jesus’ constant formula in the Sermon on the Mount is to quote the law or the rabbinic commentary on the law and then respond with an appeal to his own authority: “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …” (5:21; 5:27; 5:31; 5:33; 5:38; 5:43).

Given Jesus’ repeated contrasts between his teaching and that of the law and of the teachers of the law, given Jesus’ call to his followers to embody a greater righteousness than that of the teachers of the law, it is necessary for Jesus to remind his followers that the law pointed forward to his greater righteousness all along. Neither the law nor the prophets were ever ends in themselves. Jesus is saying that if you really want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you need to follow him. In fact, later in Matthew’s gospel he will portray representatives of the law and the prophets (Moses and Elijah) meeting with Jesus in the Transfiguration, and what does the voice of the Father in heaven say? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). It’s arguably the central theme of Matthew’s gospel.

If you are in any doubt about it, consider how the Sermon on the Mount ends. Jesus closes the sermon not with an exhortation about the importance of the Law of Moses, but with a parable about the importance of hearing Jesus’ words and doing them:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)

Needless to say, the rock Jesus is talking about here is not the law but the teachings of Jesus. And his hearers understood that. As Matthew puts it, “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). The scribes, for obvious reasons, had to quote the law or the tradition of the law for everything that they taught. They had no authority in and of themselves. But Jesus not only invoked his own authority; he explicitly placed that authority above that of either the law or the tradition of the law. “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …”

There is no doubt that Matthew intends us to view the Sermon on the Mount as the revelation of one who is greater than the law because he fulfills the law. This teaching, from this mountain, is far greater than the teaching that came from Mount Sinai in the wilderness. As Paul observes in Galatians, the law “was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (3:19), but the promise has come through faith in Christ. Or as the author to the Hebrews goes to such great lengths to explain, in past days God spoke to his people through prophets, through angels, and through Moses, but “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:2-3; Cf. Hebrews 1-3). That is the basis for the theme of Hebrews from start to finish: “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1), but in Christ the true form has come.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:17-18)

Do Christians Understand the Third Use of the Law?

Whenever I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not the law, I typically hear the objection that I am forgetting the third use of the law. The typical proof-text offered for the third use of the law is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

The concept of the third use of the law was first articulated by the Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon (although the spirit of it is found already in Martin Luther), but it was through Calvin that it became so important to the Reformed tradition. Calvin distinguished between three uses of the law:

  1. the pedagogical use of the law, which is to teach human beings that they are sinners under a curse, and so prepare them for the gospel
  2. the civil use of the law, which is to order the life of human society, with the civil government’s use of the sword if necessary
  3. the spiritual use of the law, which is to teach and exhort those who are no longer under the law (i.e., Christians) what righteousness looks like

Calvin argued that in its proper sense the Old Testament law served primarily to fulfill the first use of the law, the pedagogical use, to teach people their sin and drive them to Christ. But he argued that for Christians, who have received the gospel, been justified, and are no longer under the law (Romans 6:14), the third use, the spiritual use, becomes primary.

Most Reformed Christians understand this, I think, but what I fear many do not understand is how this spiritual use actually works. Many Christians seem to think the third use of the law means that once we have believed the gospel we are placed right back under the law again. Christ has forgiven our sins and given us his Spirit, so now we can get back to following the law. It’s a paradigm of law-gospel-law. Sometimes these same Christians continue to view the law as the one eternal covenant that God has made with his people. For them, the Christian life doesn’t look very different from the life of an Old Testament Israelite. True, we know about Jesus, and we have the Spirit in a greater measure than they did, but the basic form and content of the Christian life is not very different from that of a faithful Israelite.

The problem with this perspective is that it fails to grasp the fact that for Israelites the first use of the law was the primary one. As Paul explains in Galatians 3, the Israelites were under the law as a tutor to lead them to Christ. It was to teach them their sin and drive them to a savior. Israelites were under the law because they were subject to its curses and obligated to perform its sacrifices in order to be right with God. When Israelites heard the Ten Commandments, they heard it as a statement of their covenantal relationship with God:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image … 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.

This is what some theologians have called the “works principle” of the law, but which we might more accurately refer to as its covenantal or legal force. It is the principle that those who are under the law must do the works of the law in order to receive its blessing and avoid its curse. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote in Galatians 3:10,12 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ … But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” To be “under the law” for Paul is to be subject to it in this covenantal or legal way.

What is crucial to understand is that when Calvin said that the third use of the law is the primary use for Christians he was sharply distinguishing it from this legal sense. As he puts it in the Institutes, “the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive” (2.7.13).

In short, Christians are no longer under the law in a legal or covenantal sense. We are no longer subject to its penalties should we fail to measure up to its standards. It cannot be enforced against us. In that sense, we don’t even experience it as a law anymore. Whenever we read it, or hear it read, we need to translate it in light of what Christ has done. Christ is now the primary paradigm for our life, not the law.

Where the third use comes in, however, is in its ongoing role for education and exhortation, as Calvin explains in Institutes 2.7.12. We are not be under the law in a covenantal or legal sense anymore, but we can still learn from it and be exhorted by it. When we study the law in light of its fulfillment in Christ, it helps us understand the righteousness to which God has called us. Although we are thankful that it is no longer a “burden” that weighs upon us (Acts 15:10), we are free to peruse its stipulations to understand better why Jesus had to come, what he accomplished, and what he continues to accomplish in us by his Spirit. We are free to read its stories and hear its curses and blessings from a safe distance, using them to spur us on to greater conformity to Christ.

That’s why Paul could be emphatic throughout his writings that Christians are no longer under the law, and yet still say to Timothy that all of Scripture, including the law, remains profitable for Christians’ instruction.

What Paul did not say to Timothy is that Christians are once again under the law. What he did not say is that the Christian life consists in law-keeping. On the contrary, he insisted that he was “not myself under the law,” though he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Paul is emphatic throughout his writings that the Christian life consists not in a return to the law but in spiritual union with Christ (in whom the law is fulfilled) and conformity to Christ’s image (by which the law is fulfilled). To continue to make the law the paradigm for the Christian life is to dwell upon the shadow rather than the substance (Colossians 2:17). It is akin to requiring circumcision rather than baptism, or to modeling our worship after the temple sacrificial system rather than Christ’s instruction in the new covenant. As Paul puts it so clearly in Romans 7:6:

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

What Would Jesus Do? The Imitation of Christ

One of the strengths of the Heidelberg Catechism is that its emphasis is Christocentric from start to finish. From its wildly popular first answer – “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” – to its sensible explanation of what it means to be a Christian – that “I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing” – to its pastoral teaching regarding “what is basic to our prayer – the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father” – it maintains its powerful emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus as the essence of the Gospel.

Nowhere is this emphasis on Christ more important or deserving of emulation than in the catechism’s explanation of why believers should do good and what it means when they do such good. Strikingly, it does not merely offer an abstract description of sanctification before turning to a systematic discussion of God’s law. On the contrary, the catechism establishes the believer’s conformity to Christ – which encompasses the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new – as the paradigm for the Christian life. To be sure, the Ten Commandments provide the outline for the catechism’s teaching regarding the substance of God’s moral law. But the Decalogue is carefully interpreted through the lens of the law’s fulfillment in Christ. This is appropriate because while the law reveals God’s character on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, “God with us,” in flesh and blood.

To read the rest of this article, the first part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue at Reformation 21.

Why Did the Medieval Church Turn to the Ten Commandments? Part 2

The Ten Commandments did not play a primary role in the catechesis and discipleship of the early church. While early church catechisms did give pedagogical priority to the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, the church’s approach to the Christian life through the 12th Century tended to revolve more around the Sermon on the Mount, the teachings of Jesus’ apostles, and the virtues emphasized in the New Testament.

During the late medieval era that began to change. As I suggested on Thursday, the primary reason for this was the church’s increasing concern to reform society. An era of one calamity after another, there was a growing sense that Christendom was in crisis:

the first cataclysmic outbreak of the Black Death; the deflation of wheat prices; dramatic demographic shifts; the decline of agrarian self-sufficiency; the explosive violence of urban and rural revolts; the Hundred Years’ War; local feuds; marauding mercenaries; bloody struggles for the thrones of Europe; the inability of a partitioned Church to provide solace and guarantee salvation – a litany so well known as to risk devolving into caricature. (40)

In addition, the devout could not fail to see that the masses converted under political authority remained far too devoted to paganism and that few seemed to know even the very basics of what the Christian life is all about. Most Europeans had become Christians only as whole tribes converted in obedience to their lords and kings, and the process of education and discipleship had been remarkably slow. The late medieval era therefore gave rise to wave after wave of reformers who called for instruction, social discipline, and the establishment of order.

Under such circumstances it made a whole lot of sense increasingly to turn to the Old Testament as a guide. Unlike the New Testament, which was written to congregations of individuals and families who had voluntarily embraced their calling to be separate from the broader society, the Old Testament was written to a nation of millions, steeped in idolatry and pagan practices, kept in the faith in large part by political authorities. Unlike the New Testament, which could assume a thoughtful devotion in response to grace on the part of Christ’s voluntary disciples, the Old Testament used rewards and punishments to curb idolatry and promote righteousness. Unlike the New Testament, which emphasized teaching and growth in maturity, the Old Testament featured the prominence of ceremony, pageantry, and symbolic instruction at the hands of a select priesthood.

In these ways and so many others the medieval church found its situation to be far more analogous to that of ancient Israel than to that of the early church. It was probably inevitable, under these circumstances, that the Old Testament would increasingly become the paradigm for the life of the medieval church. Reformers increasingly demanded decisive action on the part of those with power, looking to Israelite kings as examples. They called for the authorities to extend their coercive power over institutions and realms of life not previously subject to temporal authority.

Just as importantly, the reformers turned to “new symbols” around which the authorities and the masses could rally.

Obedience to the Commandments became a rallying cry for reform preachers working to combat the perceived dissolution of Church and society, and the changes in the intellectual and spiritual trends of the age wrought by their adoption were real… Diagnosis led to prescription, with the Commandments serving as the intended tonic for a critically ill Christendom. (43)

As a system of moral instruction, the Decalogue offered something that the Gregorian system did not. It was Law – God’s own Law, etched by His finger into tablets of stone, delivered on Sinai amidst the frightful clamor of thunder and lightning, backed by the promise of eternal blessedness for those who kept it and swift, dreadful punishment for its transgressors. These were details regularly echoed by catechists… [They] clung to it as a tool to fashion an ordered, godly society, and as a weapon to fight those who opposed it. (34)

Among the first theologians to give new prominence to the Ten Commandments were Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard. Bast writes,

Lombard included in the Sentences a brief exposition of the Decalogue, which reached back to Augustine for the hermeneutical key that enabled the excision of the Ten Commandments from the burdens attributed by Christian theology to the Law of the Jews. Echoing Augustine, Lombard argued that … the moral precepts of the Law were the same as those of the Gospel, though ‘more fully contained’ in the latter. (35)

Much of the drive to educate and reform the masses was inspired and led by the monastic orders. Since the days of the Roman Empire, many of those Christians most devoted to following in the way of Christ had found it edifying to participate in various orders and disciplines that came to be known as monasticism. By the middle ages the monasteries became the place where serious Christianity was practiced, where sacred texts were transmitted, and where theology was studied and developed.

When the monastic orders of the church began to look outward, however, it was obvious that this approach had to be simplified. New catechisms were developed and disseminated for popular use. But in place of the monastic rule, they turned to the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments, many a cleric pointed out, were easily remembered. They could be counted on one’s fingers. Pound away at the Ten Commandments, tell the people that this was the way of Christianity, and they would follow.

Bast writes of the vernacular (common language) catechisms of this era,

They aimed for utility, eschewing difficult questions of theology and concentrating on simple doctrines and moral guidelines that taught people what to believe, how to act, how to pray – the very essence of the catechism. (13)

As one parish chaplain, Johannes Wolff, boasted, the method was so foolproof and simple that all would learn it “whether they liked it or not,” even those “as dull as a beast, a horse, an ass, or a stone.” (24)

Each Sunday, after the reading of the Creed, clerics were to recite the Ten Commandments slowly in German, counting them off on their fingers, with frequent pauses so that the congregation could repeat the words. (24)

Increasingly attempts were made to classify all of the traditional commandments and virtues under the various Ten Commandments. Although the Ten Commandments were to be interpreted through the lens of the New Testament, it was increasingly the Law itself that set the tone for church discipleship. Bast goes on,

Though it never entirely replaced the Gregorian system of the virtues and vices, by the fifteenth century it had become the single most popular guide for moral instruction in much of Europe – a position confirmed in the catechetical programs of Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. Already in the thirteenth century, however, the moral theology of the new mendicant orders was making claims of the Decalogue that would have shocked earlier generations: obedience to the Ten Commandments of the Law of Moses is necessary for salvation. (36)

“We should not underestimate the significance of this paradigm shift in moral instruction,” Bast warns. He cites John Bossy’s argument that “with the emergence of Decalogue catechesis, the Western Church exchanged a communal ethic of kinship for a religious code of Old Testament severity.” (36) It was with the Catechismus Romanus at the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church “officially designated the Decalogue as the standard according to which the whole realm of moral responsibility was to be read and practiced.” (39)

The churches of the Reformation rejected the place of the law in justification, of course, and they vehemently denied any meaningful distinction between the moral teachings of Christ and the Law of Moses. As concerned to preserve Christendom as were their medieval forbears, however, they gladly inherited the emphasis on the Ten Commandments in catechesis. But I’ll write more about that later.

Why Didn’t the Church Emphasize the Ten Commandments Until the Late Medieval Era?

A few weeks ago I suggested that the emphasis of Reformed catechisms on the Ten Commandments can obscure the fact that the New Testament’s approach to the Christian life is that of putting on – or being conformed to the image of, or following – Jesus. The ordinary pedagogical approach of the New Testament, I noted, is not to explain the Ten Commandments or urge believers to follow them, but to describe the implications of the person, work, virtues, and commandments of Jesus.

Although this claim may sound radical to modern ears, for most educated Christians up until the 13th or 14th centuries it would have been a matter of course. One thoughtful reader – a student of the early church – wrote this to me:

I’ve continued reflecting on the catechetical and didactic use of the Law, particularly as I’ve been reading William Harmless’ book Augustine and the Catechumenate which details the complex and rich process of preparation for baptism in the primitive church.

I have been on the look-out for mention of the Decalogue as a core part of any of the four parts of initiation: 1) the evangelistic, 2) the catechetical, 3) the illuminative, or 4) the mystagogic processes. In both East and West, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer receive paramount attention, especially in the weeks leading up to the Easter Vigil when baptisms would take place. Particularly during Lent, there was tremendous instruction in Christian living and ethics during the daily services which involved teaching, singing, exorcism, anointing, and blessing. But, as I’ve been reading Harmless, he makes no mention (that I’ve picked up on) of a systematic use by the primitive church of the Decalogue. I’ve now become curious as to when (presumably during the Medieval period) the Decalogue became a focus again of Christian discipleship and instruction.

This prompted me to do some research on my own. Is it true that the early church did not emphasize the Ten Commandments in its catechesis? If so, when did the Ten Commandments become a focus of Christian discipleship? And what was the motivation for the shift in focus?

These questions led me to a fascinating (and unfortunately expensive) book by Robert James Bast entitled, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of A Patriarchal Ideology in Germany 1400-1600. Bast’s basic thesis is that during the late medieval era and the early Reformation Christian theologians turned to the Ten Commandments as a focus of catechesis as a primary means of disciplining and ordering a society that was widely seen to be in crisis. The title of the book comes from the stress such theologians placed on the Fifth Commandment as the foundation for paternalistic magisterial authority, and the consequent obligation of godly magistrates to enforce all ten commandments.

In the first chapter Bast sets up the context for his more focused analysis by considering “The Ten Commandments and Late-Medieval Catechesis.” He begins by confirming the judgment of my correspondent above, that early church catechesis involved “a formal period of instruction, usually based on the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and moral directives drawn from a variety of sources” (3). It was not until the late 12th Century that the Ten Commandments began gradually to move into a more prominent position. Yet of the tradition before this Bast writes,

Nearly unnoticed in scholarship on the catechism is the fact that while catechesis itself had been on the agenda of the Church from the very beginning, the use of the Decalogue had not. For reasons not yet completely clear, before the late twelfth century the attitude of the Church toward the Commandments was ambiguous… Christians defined themselves as recipients of a New Covenant, sealed by the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus’ death) and guided by a new and better Law (the Sermon on the Mount). (32-33)

Bast goes on to clarify that the church decisively rejected the heresy of Marcionism, which divorced Christianity from Judaism and the New Testament from the Old. As a result, the church sought to emphasize on the one hand the enduring truth and relevance of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, and on the other hand its fulfillment in the clearer revelation of Jesus.

The general tenor of the solution may be seen in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 200), who claimed the superiority of Christian ethics to the Jewish Law, while affirming that the Decalogue itself had not been cancelled, but rather amplified and extended by Jesus… Catechetical texts from the Patristic era include the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, explanations of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a great deal of moral teaching drawn from various biblical and apocryphal sources, but the Decalogue was generally passed over. (33)

Augustine was somewhat of an exception, Bast points out.

[H]e preached on the Commandments regularly, and a cautious though unwavering affirmation of them runs through his works. Here too, however, the ideological need to preserve the superiority of Christian revelation was maintained, for Augustine was careful to read the Decalogue as the practical exposition of Jesus’ commands to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself. (33)

Augustine’s careful and qualified approach to the Decalogue did not change the church’s emphasis in catechism and discipleship. The typical early church approach to catechesis was solidified during the medieval era by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604).

According to Gregory, the commandments of the Decalogue were essentially inferior to the precepts of the Gospel. While the former governed only external actions, he argued, the latter went further, dealing with matters of the heart. The old Law was ‘imperfect’ and ‘weak’; ‘bread for infants,’ given to an immature people for a limited time, but later repudiated by God himself. As … good things cease to be good when compared to what is better, so too, argued Gregory, the Commandments given to the ignorant pale beside the ethical teaching of the New Testament. (34)

Gregory’s Moralia, Bast observes, became the basis for the church’s moral instruction for centuries.

Culling ethical imperatives and prohibitions almost exclusively from the Gospels, the Epistles, and patristic theology, Gregory created a patchwork of moral teaching organized into seven virtues and seven vices (or ‘deadly sins’). (34) Ecclesiastical legislation from subsequent centuries followed Gregory in de-emphasizing the Ten Commandments. (34)

The later shift toward the Ten Commandments did not come from the Reformation. Indeed, it was not a distinctive of the Reformation at all, contrary to popular belief. It began, rather, during the 12th Century, both in response to a new scholarly interest in the Old Testament and the increasing fear of European elites that Christendom was falling into crisis. Many scholars have noted that during the late medieval era, especially after the Gregorian Revolution, the church began to devote tremendous energy to social and cultural reform. The Ten Commandments were increasingly seen as a simple and decisive authority for the illiterate masses (the Ten Commandments can easily be counted on one’s fingers). They were also conceived as an easy and obvious program for enforcement by lay magistrates.

It was no accident that the medieval church turned to Israel and the Law when its mindset revolved around reforming the masses, Bast notes.

As a system of moral instruction, the Decalogue offered something that the Gregorian system did not. It was Law – God’s own Law, etched by His finger into tablets of stone, delivered on Sinai amidst the frightful clamor of thunder and lightning, backed by the promise of eternal blessedness for those who kept it and swift, dreadful punishment for its transgressors. These were details regularly echoed by catechists… [They] clung to it as a tool to fashion an ordered, godly society, and as a weapon to fight those who opposed it. (34)

In part 2 of this series I’ll consider these developments after the 12th Century. Either there, or in a part 3, I’ll take a look at how the Protestant appropriation of the Ten Commandments built on and adapted the late medieval approach.

The Christian Life is About Following Christ Not the Law: 12 Clarifying Propositions

When I first decided that I was going to pursue ethics as my vocation, some years ago, I at the same time made an equally important decision about the kind of ethicist I wanted to be: a biblical ethicist. By that adjective ‘biblical’ I did not simply mean that I wanted to come to ethical conclusions that were consistent with scripture. I meant that I wanted to ‘do ethics’ the way scripture itself does ethics. Specifically, I wanted my approach to the Christian life to be the same approach that is found in the New Testament. In short, I believed that Christian ethics is fundamentally about reflection on what it means to “put on Jesus Christ.”

One of the first obstacles I discovered, however, was the tradition in Protestant ethics of emphasizing the Ten Commandments as the framework or model for the Christian life. In some, Presbyterian circles this tradition was expanded so as to emphasize the Mosaic Law in general, including all of its judicial and political regulations. It is important to stress that, for the most part, my difficulty was not with the moral truths affirmed or denied, nor with the fact that those moral truths were traced to the Ten Commandments or the Old Testament. Indeed, having been raised under the Heidelberg Catechism, I was always taught to interpret and follow the Ten Commandments in light of Christ. And I wholeheartedly affirm this teaching.

My difficulty, rather, was that it quickly became apparent to me that the emphasis on the Ten Commandments is not the approach of the New Testament to the Christian life; indeed, it was obscuring it. It became clear to me that the New Testament does not identify the Ten Commandments or “the law” as the primary framework for pleasing God or conforming to his moral law. Rather, it identifies Jesus Christ, whom we are to “put on” and to whose image we are to be “conformed,” as the only perfect model of God’s moral will (or moral law). Every single New Testament writing (with only the apparent exception of James), I realized, seeks to shift our focus away from “the law” and towards Christ. If I want to follow the New Testament’s own approach to ethics, this is what I have to do as well.

This approach does not, it needs to be emphasized, separate Christ from his law. As the New Testament clearly teaches, Jesus is the one who fulfilled the law, and those who follow him and conform to his image thereby fulfill the law as well. Nor does it minimize the usefulness of the law, or of the Old Testament, for Christian ethics. All scripture is profitable for correction and instruction. The law was always intended to point us to Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that by focusing on the law, or by emphasizing it as the framework for the Christian life, we thereby emphasize Christ. By analogy, the entire Hebrew sacrificial system pointed forward to Christ, but that doesn’t mean that by observing the Hebrew sacrificial system we appropriately demonstrate our faith in Christ. Rather, we best learn from the law by doing what the law itself does – looking to Jesus Christ. There is an arrow between the law and Christ, not an equals sign.

It might seem surprising to some that this argument turns out to be fraught with controversy in certain Reformed circles. The main reason for this controversy, I believe, is that we tend to approach ethics through the lens of our systematic theology and tradition, rather than through the lens of the New Testament. Systematic theology and tradition are both very good things, of course, even necessary. But they become dangerous if they in any way replace scripture itself in regulating our Christian mind. In this case, the classic medieval distinction of the Mosaic Law into the three parts of moral, judicial (or civil), and ceremonial is useful insofar as it clarifies for us that the moral truth – or the righteousness – of the Mosaic Law is binding on all times and places. It has become problematic insofar as it confuses believers into thinking that scripture itself uses this distinction, such that it should control our exegesis of specific passages, or that specific passages can be neatly categorized into one or another of these types of law. It has also become problematic insofar as many Christians have come to view any imperative or command in scripture as “the law”, failing to realize that this is not how scripture itself uses the word ‘law.’

Given the fact that for many people these are novel arguments, and that for others these arguments intuitively evoke a negative response, I want to clarify my basic argument through twelve propositions. At that point, all I can do is to point you, my readers, to scripture itself. Does the New Testament usually characterize the Christian life, and the Christian’s relation to the law, as I describe it here? If it does not, then you should reject my arguments. If it does, regardless of how any particular systematic theology approaches Christian ethics, my arguments are biblical. So look to the scriptures and see whether or not these things are true.

Here are my propositions.

1) The category of ‘moral law’ is an extra-biblical category that should play a role in our reflection but should not be brought to bear inappropriately on the primary work of scriptural exegesis. To quote New Testament scholar Doug Moo, “As has often been pointed out, the threefold distinction of moral, ceremonial, and civil law as separate categories with varying degrees of applicability is simply unknown in the Judaism of the first century, and there is little evidence that Jesus or Paul introduced such a distinction.” For more on this see Moo’s excellent article, “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 73-100 [85]).

2) When scripture uses the word ‘law’ it ordinarily refers to the law given at Sinai, that is, the Mosaic Law, representative of the of the whole Mosaic Covenant as a unit, encompassing all three categories of what later theologians called the moral, ceremonial, and civil law. (Sometimes, of course, it also refers to Old Testament scripture in general. But the former is the default meaning.)

3) Scripture decisively, explicitly, and repeatedly identifies the Ten Commandments as the Sinai (or Mosaic) covenant itself. The Ten Commandments were the “tablets of stone” placed in the ark of the covenant. Exodus 34:28 declares of Moses on Mt. Sinai, “And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is a fundamental claim in my argument. See Exodus 34:1-4, 27-30; Deuteronomy 4:11-13; Deuteronomy 9:9-15; Deuteronomy 10:1-5. Cf. 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Exodus 24:12.

4) Scripture never identifies the Ten Commandments in this way with the timeless, eternal moral law of God, despite the substantial degree of overlap between the two.

5) The New Testament writers decisively, explicitly, and repeatedly direct our attention from “the law” to Jesus, whether as the true fulfillment and interpreter of the law (Matthew); as the one who, in contrast to Moses as the giver of the law, brings grace and truth and directs his followers to “my commandments” (John); as the one who has made a new and “better” covenant and thereby rendered the old one “obsolete” (Hebrews); as the one who has fulfilled and abolished the law, creating in himself the new man (Paul).

6) The New Testament writers decisively, explicitly, and consistently describe the Christian life, including what we would call obedience to the moral law, in terms of obedience to Jesus, following Jesus, putting on Jesus, conforming to Jesus, walking in Jesus, walking worthy of Jesus, or living in the Spirit (of Jesus). The New Testament almost never summarizes Christian obedience (including to the moral law) or sanctification primarily in terms of obedience or conformity to the law.

7) Paul and Hebrews both explicitly identify the Ten Commandments, “the tablets of stone,” with the old covenant or ministry that was temporary. See Hebrews 9:4, especially in context of Hebrews 8:6-9:15. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:3-18 explicitly identifies the Ten Commandments, in the context of Moses’ coming down from the mountain and his face shining, as the old covenant, the ministry of death, condemnation, and of the letter that kills, in contrast to the new covenant, which he describes as the ministry of righteousness and of the Spirit that gives life. As if to remind us that he is talking about sanctification, not simply justification, Paul concludes that it is through this new covenant that we are “being transformed into the same image [of Christ].”

8) Paul often explicitly identifies “the law” as that which came at a specific point in time, that is, at Sinai. It came “430 years” after Abraham as a guardian for the people of God (Galatians 3:17, 24). The Gentiles did “not have” the law, the “written code” (Romans 2:14-15, 27-29) because it was not given until the time of Moses (Romans 5:13-14, 20).

9) In the same contexts as in Proposition 8, he interprets the same law as that which Christians are not under, because they are now in Christ. We are no longer under a guardian but have put on Christ (Galatians 3:25-27). We are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14).

10) We are not under law, not only with reference to justification, but with reference to our Christian service, or sanctification. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6).

11) The law is good, righteous, and holy (Romans 7), but it is bad news for sinners, to whom it brings death. Yet by following Christ and walking according to the Spirit believers fulfill the righteousness of the law (Romans 8:4) because love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10). The best way to honor the goodness and righteousness of the law is therefore by putting on Christ and conforming to his image. The law is still useful for Christian instruction (2 Timothy 3:16), but only as interpreted through the paradigm of walking in Christ (i.e., Ephesians 6:1-3). The law, as such (i.e., as a covenantal document), is only used “lawfully” and “in accordance with the glorious gospel” if it is used for the ungodly and the wicked (1 Timothy 1:5-11).

12) The word ‘law’ in the New Testament almost exclusively refers to the old covenant, to that which believers were once “under,” and almost never to the framework, model, or mindset of the Christian life. Of the very few times where the word ‘law’ is used with reference to the Christian life of sanctification, even in James, it is almost invariably qualified by a reference to liberty, or to Christ, indicating that it is not “the law,” as such, that is in view. If you don’t trust me on this, run a word search on the word ‘law’ in the New Testament. It’s startling how rarely it appears in contexts of the Christian life or sanctification, or what we would call obedience to the moral law. The most obvious explanation of this emphasis is 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, where Paul says he is “not under the law,” though he often becomes like one under the law to win over Jews, but that he is “under the law of Christ” (Cf. Galatians 6:2).

This article has gotten long enough, but it is the basis for a fuller article I’m working on that I will release at some point in the future. I’d also like to say more about why this matters so much. For now, I hope it is enough to show that if the New Testament so explicitly, decisively, and consistently redirects our focus from the law to Christ, it must be for very good reasons. I also want to offer the suggestion, built on what I’ve said above, that the reason why the New Testament does not emphasize the Ten Commandments as the paradigm for the Christian life is that it views the Ten Commandments primarily as a covenantal document, expressive of the Sinai Covenant, in contrast to the new covenant. Covenantal paradigms are hugely important in Scripture. It’s all about how you view your relationship to God and what your life is all about.

I want to close with this reminder. That I personally hold to these views is entirely irrelevant. But if I am right about the emphasis of the New Testament, then we are wrong to identify the Ten Commandments as the primary or best expression of the moral law, let alone as the framework for the obedient Christian life. In contrast, we should (following the cue of Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, as one pastor pointed out to me) identify the best expression of the moral law as Christ himself. The framework for the Christian life is therefore putting on the new man Jesus an conforming to his image (See especially Ephesians 4:17-32 and Colossians 3:1-17, both of which set the framework for those letters’ household codes).

All I can ask of you, then, is to pull out your Bibles, read through the books and letters of the New Testament (ideally in one sitting for each) and see if these things are true. Does the New Testament, in fact, emphasize the law as the primary paradigm and framework for the Christian life, or does it emphasize Jesus? Keep in mind, what we’re talking about is the particular law of scripture, not the moral law. Is it indeed wrong, as some of my critics insist, to emphasize Christ over and above the law?(Note: This article follows three previous articles on this topic, here, here, and here.)

The Christian Life Is About Following Jesus, Not the Law: Does Reformed Ethics Get This?

In the era that Christians describe as that of the Old Testament, faithful Jews came to know God in two primary ways. First, they meditated on the great works that God had done for the Hebrew people throughout their history, including most obviously the Exodus. As Psalm 111:2 exclaims, for example,

Great are the works of the LORD! Studied by all who delight in them.

Second, faithful Jews studied the law of God, with all of its precepts regarding worship and political life, mercy, justice and the demands of piety. As Psalm 119:97 declares, a psalm focused almost entirely on the law,

O how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

After the coming of Jesus Christians still meditate on God’s works and on the law, of course, but for us knowing God takes somewhat of a different focus. For we know God not primarily through the law, or through what he did for the Hebrew people, but through the one who fulfilled both the law and the prophets, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ works are now our works, and define who we are. And we do not follow the old written code that kills, but the Spirit of Christ, who gives life (Romans 7:6; Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6).

Unfortunately, the catechisms of the Reformation sometimes obscure this point because of their emphasis on the Ten Commandments as the primary teaching tool for righteous living according to God’s moral law. But the New Testament comes at the matter from a slightly different direction. Sit down and read your New Testament cover to cover and you will notice a consistent redirecting of Christians from the law to the one who fulfilled and satisfied it, not just with reference to justification and the forgiveness of sins, but with reference to sanctification and good works. To put it simply, the typical approach of Christian scripture when describing the Christian life is not to call believers to obey the law, but to urge them to “put on the new man,” to conform to the image of Christ by following him.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the classic example of this approach, of course. After showing that believers are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14), Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… But put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:8, 14).

A more subtle, and therefore less appreciated, example of this approach is the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There, after declaring that he constantly offers prayers of thanksgiving for the faith, hope, and love that he sees in the Colossian church, he declares that he also prays that they might grow in the knowledge of God by “walking in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10). How are they to imitate Jesus in this way? By being “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9).

The million dollar question, of course, is how Christians are to attain this knowledge of God’s will, this wisdom and understanding. And so often Christians instinctively assume that the source is simply the law. As I recently heard one Presbyterian pastor put it, the Christian life can be summed up in one word: law-keeping.

But this is misguided, and it is certainly not the point of Colossians 1. As Paul points out only a few sentences later, in Colossians 2:3, it is Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The Christian life consists in putting on the “new man” and so being “renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator” (3:10), who, of course, is Jesus (1:15-20). That’s why Christians are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (3:1), rather than those things that are on earth, including the law with all its shadows.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (2:16-17)

The great theme of Colossians is that because in Jesus “all things exist” (1:17), Christians are to find their identity and way of life in him and nowhere else. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (2:6). That’s why Paul emphasizes the meaning of his ministry in just these words: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28).

We grow in the knowledge of God’s will, walking in a manner worthy of the Lord, in short, by focusing on Jesus.

It is the failure to emphasize this following of Jesus as the form and model of the Christian life, I worry, that is the greatest weakness of standard Reformed ethics. Look at a typical syllabus for a Reformed Christian ethics course, or a typical Reformed catechism, and the emphasis will fall almost entirely on the Ten Commandments. To be sure, Reformed theology has always been clear that we observe only the moral law as it is found in the Old Testament, not the law in general. And there is no contradiction between the moral law that is found in the Ten Commandments and the way of Jesus. All scripture is profitable for correction and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16), including the Old Testament law. There is a third use of the law. But that doesn’t give us the right to ignore the model and approach laid out for us in the New Testament, as if the fulfillment of the shadow in Christ meant that the shadow was somehow clearer than Christ himself (which is how many Reformed teachers seem to think, at least in practice).

Focusing too much on the Ten Commandments, or on other parts of the Old Testament law, has its costs. It was designed as a tutor or guardian for children, as Paul says in Galatians 3, and it is therefore insufficient for we who are “no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:26). The law described the way of God’s righteousness in shadows, emphasizing outward rules, prohibitions, and practices, all the while tolerating a significant degree of immaturity and “hardness of heart” (Matthew 19:8). But in Jesus we have the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the one who embodied perfect love, justice, mercy, and truth. Because he alone has already taken the path we are called to follow, as the firstborn of many brothers, we can be confident that it is only when we take up our cross and follow him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we too fulfill the law.

No, the Christian life cannot be summed up in terms of law-keeping. We are called Christians because our life is summed up, as the early Christians described it, as “the way” of Jesus Christ.

Are Christians Under the Ten Commandments?

In a discussion at the Puritan Board regarding propositions written by Mark VanDerMolen in a comment thread on this blog, a number of people wondered how it can be true that the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given at Mt. Sinai uniquely for God’s covenant people, and yet the moral substance of those commandments remain binding on all human beings in all times and places. As one person wrote, this seems like “doublespeak … [I]s the moral law expressed in 10 commandments binding on all men or not?”

In practice I don’t think most people have any trouble distinguishing between the Ten Commandments as given and the moral substance of those commandments as timeless. After all, the commandments specifically address the covenant people of God (I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt), make promises unique to the covenant people of God (that you may live long in the land the LORD your God has given you), and provide reasons unique to the covenant people of God (for the LORD brought you out of a land of slavery). Such covenant language could not have been transferred to ancient Egyptians or Canaanites any more than it can be transferred to contemporary Tibetan Buddhists or even to American Evangelicals.

Why not? Because the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of a specific legal document, a covenant often referred to by theologians as the Mosaic Covenant and described in the New Testament simply as “the Law.” Neither Jews nor Christians have ever received them simply as a timeless statement of ethical principles, which is why Jews do not view the sabbath law as binding on Gentiles, and why Christians do not hold to the seventh day sabbath. If Christians literally believed that the Decalogue was given to all people in all places as a timeless statement of moral law, we would all be Seventh Day Adventists, seeking the reward for our obedience to our parents by relocating to the land of Israel.

Some Christians do that, of course, but not most of us.

Most of us follow the lead of Christian theologians going back to the middle ages and distinguish between the moral substance of the Law – which we equate with the principle of love, or with natural law – and the covenantally contextual elements of that Law, usually described as the judicial and ceremonial law, which no longer bind us. In addition, we follow the logic of the theologian John Calvin, who distinguished between the rigor and contractual legal force of the law, which no longer binds Christians, and the truth or teaching of the law, which is always profitable for moral instruction.

In taking this approach to the Ten Commandments we follow the Apostle Paul in Romans. Paul argued that Christians are no longer under the Law, having been freed from it and bound to Christ just as a woman whose husband has died is free to marry a new husband. At the same time, he called Christians to love one another, declaring that by doing so they fulfill the moral substance of all the commandments.

Why is this confusing to some Protestants today? It is confusing in part because despite these clear covenantal and theological distinctions, the theologians of the Reformation generally described the moral law as being summarized in the Ten Commandments. Both Luther, Calvin and their followers gave the Ten Commandments a prominent place in their catechisms, which became the core teaching tool (after regular preaching) instilling doctrine into their followers. Eventually various catechisms and confessions presented the Ten Commandments simply as the summary of the moral law. For instance, in response to the question, “What is God’s law?”, the Heidelberg Catechism recites the Ten Commandments. Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith declares that the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments.

Have these documents abandoned the distinction between the Ten Commandments as a contextual covenantal document and the timeless moral law, thus leading to contemporary confusion? In my view they are less than clear on the point, but a careful consideration of each indicates that while the distinction is not clearly stated and articulated, it is nevertheless assumed. This is most obvious for the Heidelberg Catechism, which follows Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession in interpreting the Fourth Commandment (the sabbath law) in terms of an eternal sabbath that calls Christians to spiritual rest and worship, rather than as a call to seventh day sabbath observance, as the Decalogue is actually written. But even the Westminster Confession, which does present the sabbath day principle as binding on Christians, explains that for Christians the day has been changed from the seventh day of the week to the first. Even here, it is clear, it is the moral substance of the commandments that is viewed as binding on all people, not the Decalogue itself as given to Israel.

One might wonder why this question even matters, outside perhaps of debates about the sabbath law. Everyone involved in the discussion agrees that the moral law as presented in the Ten Commandments is binding on all people and all places, and (as far as I can tell) everyone agrees that the elements of the law that were covenantally specific to Israel are not. Nevertheless, given the consternation of some Reformed Christians regarding those who try to explain why this is the case, the point clearly needs clarification. I hope this post has helped to provide just that.

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