There are two things which are indispensable to the Christianís life: first, a clear knowledge of duty, and second, a conscientious practice of duty corresponding to his knowledge. As we can have no well-grounded hope of eternal salvation without obedience, so we can have no sure rule of obedience without knowledge. Although there may be knowledge without practice, yet there cannot possibly be practice of Godís will without knowledge. And therefore that we might be informed what we ought to do and what to avoid, it has pleased the Ruler and Judge of all the earth to prescribe for us laws for the regulating of our actions. When we had miserably defaced the Law of nature originally written in our hearts, so that many of its commandments were no longer legible, it seemed good to the Lord to transcribe that Law into the Scriptures, and in the Ten Commandments we have a summary of the same.
First let us consider their promulgation. The manner in which the Decalogue was formally delivered to Israel was very awe-inspiring, yet replete with valuable instruction for us. First, the people were commanded to spend two days in preparing themselves, by a ceremonial cleansing from all external pollution, before they were ready to stand in the presence of God (Exodus 19:10, 11). This teaches us that serious preparation of heart and mind must be made before we come to wait before God in His ordinances and receive a word at His mouth; and that if Israel must sanctify themselves in order to appear before God at Sinai, how much more must we sanctify ourselves that we may be meet to appear before God in Heaven. Next, the mount on which God appeared was to be fenced, with a strict prohibition that none should presume to approach the holy mount (19:12, 13). This teaches us that God is infinitely superior to us and due our utmost reverence, and intimates the strictness of His Law.
Next we have a description of the fearful manifestation in which Jehovah appeared to deliver His Law (Exodus 19:18, 19), which was designed to affect the people of Israel with an awe for His authority and to signify that if God were so terrible in the giving of the Law, when He comes to judge us for its violation how much more so will He be? When God had delivered the Ten Words, so greatly affected were the people that they entreated Moses to act as a mediator and interpreter between God and them (20:18, 19). This teaches us that when the Law is delivered to us directly by God it is (in itself) the ministration of condemnation and death, but as it is delivered to us by the Mediator, Christ, we may hear and observe it (see Galatians 3:19; 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). Accordingly Moses went up into the mount and received the Law, inscribed by Godís own finger upon two tables of stone, signifying that our hearts are naturally so hard that none but the finger of God can make any impression of His Law upon them. Those tables were broken by Moses in his holy zeal (Exodus 32:19), and God wrote them a second time (34:1). This signifies that the Law of Nature was written on our hearts at creation, broken when we fell in Adam, and rewritten in our hearts at regeneration (Hebrews 10:16).
But some may ask, "Has not the Law been fully abrogated by the coming of Christ into the world? Would you bring us under that heavy yoke of bondage which none has ever been able to bear? Does not the New Testament expressly declare that we are not under the Law, but under Grace; that Christ was made under the Law to free His people there from? Is not an attempt to overawe menís conscience by the authority of the Decalogue a legalistic imposition, altogether at variance with that Christian liberty which the Savior has brought in by His obedience unto death?" We answer thus: So far from the Law being abolished by the coming of Christ into this world, He Himself emphatically stated,
"Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets (the enforcers thereof): I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matthew 5:17, 18).
True, the Christian is not under the Law as a Covenant of Works nor as a ministration of condemnation, but he is under it as a rule of life and a means of sanctification.
Second, let us consider their uniqueness. This appears first in that this revelation of God at Sinai, which was to serve for all coming ages as the grand expression of His holiness and the summation of manís duty, was attended with such awe-inspiring phenomena that the very manner of their publication plainly showed that God Himself assigned to the Decalogue peculiar importance. The Ten Commandments were uttered by God in an audible voice, with the fearful adjuncts of clouds and darkness, thunders and lightnings and the sound of a trumpet, and they were the only parts of Divine Revelation so spokenónone of the ceremonial or civil precepts were thus distinguished. Those Ten Words, and they alone, were written by the finger of God upon tables of stone, and they alone were deposited in the holy ark for safekeeping. Thus, in the unique honor conferred upon the Decalogue, we may perceive its paramount importance in the divine government.
Third, let us consider their springs, which is love. Far too little emphasis has been placed upon their Divine preface: "And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Whatever of awful grandeur and solemn majesty attended the promulgation of the Law, nevertheless, it had its foundation in love. The Law proceeded from God as a clear expression of His character as both the gracious Redeemer and righteous Lord of His people. The obvious conclusion and all-important principle that must be drawn from this understanding is this: redemption necessitates conformity to Godís character and order in those who are redeemed. Not only was Godís giving of the Decalogue an act of love, but love was the basis upon which it was received by His people, for only thus could there be a conformity, an essential likeness, between a redeeming God and a redeemed people. The words at the close of the second commandment, "showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments," make it crystal clear that the only obedience which God accepts is that which proceeds from an affectionate heart. The Savior declared that the requirements of the Law were all summed up in loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Fourth, let us consider their perpetuity. That the Decalogue is binding upon every man in each succeeding generation is evident from many considerations. First, as the necessary and unchanging expression of Godís rectitude, its authority over all moral agents becomes inevitable: the character of God Himself must change before the Law (the rule of His government) can be revoked. This is the Law that was given to man at his creation from which his subsequent apostasy could not relieve him. The Moral Law is founded on relations which subsist wherever there are creatures endowed with reason and volition. Second, Christ Himself rendered to the Law a perfect obedience, thereby leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps. Third, the Apostle to the Gentiles specifically raised the question "Do we then make void the Law through faith?" and answered,
Finally, the perpetuity of the Law appears in Godís writing it in the hearts of His people at their new birth (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26, 27).
Fifth, we pass on to say a word upon the number of the commandments of the Moral Law, ten being indicative of their completeness. This is emphasized in Scripture by their being expressly designated "the Ten Words" (Exodus 34:28 margin), which intimates that they formed by themselves an entire whole made up of the necessary, and no more than the necessary, complement of its parts. It was on account of this symbolic import of the number that the plagues upon Egypt were precisely that many, forming as such a complete round of Divine judgments. And it was for the same reason that the transgressions of the Hebrews in the wilderness were allowed to proceed till the same number had been reached: when they had "sinned these ten times" (Numbers 14:21) they had "filled up the measure of their iniquities." Hence also the consecration of the tithes or tenths: the whole increase was represented by ten, and one of these was set apart for the Lord in token of all being derived from Him and held for Him.
Sixth, we consider their division. As God never acts without good reason we may be sure He had some particular design in writing the Law upon two tables. This design is evident on the surface, for the very substance of these precepts, which together comprehend the sum of righteousness, separates them into two distinct groups, the first respecting our obligations Godward, and the second our obligations manward, the former treating of what belongs peculiarly to the worship of God, the latter of the duties of charity in our social relations. Utterly worthless is that righteousness which abstains from acts of violence against our fellows while we withhold from the Majesty of heaven the glory which is His due. Equally vain is it to pretend to be worshippers of God if we refuse those offices of love which are due to our neighbors. Abstaining from fornication is more than neutralized if I blasphemously take the Lordís name in vain, while the most punctilious worship is rejected by Him while 1 steal or lie.
Nor do the duties of Divine worship fill up the first table because they are, as Calvin terms them, "the head of religion," but as he rightly adds, they are "the very soul of it, constituting all its life and vigor," for without the fear of God, men preserve no equity and love among themselves. If the principle of piety be lacking, whatever justice, mercy, and temperance men may practice among themselves, it is vain in the sight of Heaven; whereas if God be accorded His rightful place in our hearts and lives, venerating Him as the Arbiter of right and wrong, this will constrain us to deal equitably with our fellows. Opinion has varied as to how the Ten Words were divided, as to whether the fifth ended the first table or began the second.† Personally, we incline decidedly to the former: because parents stand to us in the place of God while we are young; because in Scripture parents are never regarded as "neighbors"óon an equality; and because each of the first five commandments contain the phrase "the Lord thy God," which is not found in any of the remaining five.
Seventh, let us consider their spirituality. "The Law is spiritual" (Romans 7:14), not only because it proceeds from a spiritual Legislator, but because it demands something more than the mere obedience of external conduct, namely, the internal obedience of the heart to its uttermost extent. It is only as we perceive that the Decalogue extends to thoughts and desires of the heart that we discover how much there is in ourselves in direct opposition to it. God requires truth "in the inward parts" (Psalm 51:6) and prohibits the smallest deviation from holiness even in our imaginations. The fact that the Law takes cognizance of our most secret dispositions and intentions, that it demands the holy regulation of our mind, affections, and will, and that it requires all our obedience to proceed from love at once demonstrates its Divine origin. No other law ever professed to govern the spirit of man, but He who searches the heart claims nothing less. This high spirituality of the Law was evidenced by Christ when He insisted that an unchaste look was adultery and that malignant anger was a breach of the sixth commandment.
Eighth, we consider their office. The first use of the Moral Law is to reveal the only righteousness which is acceptable to God, and at the same time to discover to us our own unrighteousness. Sin has blinded our judgment, filled us with self-love, and wrought in us a false sense of our own sufficiency. But if we seriously compare ourselves with the high and holy demands of Godís Law, we are made aware of our groundless insolence, convicted of our pollution and guilt, and made conscious of our lack of strength to do what is required of us. Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book II, Chapter 7, section 7), says, "Thus the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both." Its second use is to restrain the wicked, who though they have no concern for Godís glory and no thought of pleasing Him, yet refrain from many outward acts of sin through fear of its terrible penalty. Though this commends them not to God, it is a benefit to the community in which they live. Third, the law is the believerís rule of life, to direct him, and to keep him dependent upon Divine grace.
Ninth, we consider its sanctions. Not only has the Lord brought us under infinite obligations for having redeemed us from sinís slavery, not only has He given His people such a sight and sense of His awe-inspiring majesty as to beget in them a reverence for His sovereignty, but He has been pleased to provide additional inducements for us to yield to His authority, gladly perform His bidding, and shrink with abhorrence from what He forbids, by subjoining promises and threatenings, saying, "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My commandments." Thus we are informed that those who perform His bidding shall not labor in vain, just as rebels shall not escape with impunity.
And tenth and finally, we consider their interpretation. "Thy commandment" said the Psalmist "is exceeding broad" (119:96). So comprehensive is the Moral Law that its authority extends to all the moral actions of our lives. The rest of the Scriptures are but a commentary on the Ten Commandments, either exciting us to obedience by arguments, alluring us by promises, restraining from transgressions by threatenings, or spurring us to the one and withholding us from the other by examples recorded in the historical portions. Rightly understood the precepts of the New Testament are but explications, amplifications, and applications of the Ten Commandments. It should be carefully observed that in the things expressly commanded or forbidden there is always implied more than is formally stated. But let us be more specific.
First, in each Commandment the chief duty or sin is taken as representative of all the lesser duties or sins, and the overt act is taken as representative of all related affections. Whatever specific sin be named, all the sins of the same kind, with all the causes and provocations thereof, are forbidden, for Christ expounded the sixth commandment as condemning not only actual murder, but also rash anger in the heart.
Second, when any vice is forbidden, the contrary virtue is enjoined, and when any virtue is commanded, the contrary vice is condemned. For example, in the third God forbids the taking of His name in vain, so by necessary consequence the hallowing of His name is commanded. And
as the eighth forbids stealing, so it requires the contrary dutyóearning our living and paying for what we receive (Ephesians 4:28).