by Rick Philips; REFORMATION 21; February 23, 2015
Many Christian commenters today are expressing concern about antinomian tendencies in the church. We are especially seeing attempts to downplay the role of God’s law as a guide to Christian living (the so-called third use of the law). One question that comes into play is whether or not the Ten Commandments should be thought of as a uniquely and eternally binding statement of God’s moral law. Or, in contrast, are the Ten Commandments just part of the diverse “Mosaic corpus” intended only to govern the lives of a particular ancient Near Eastern people and thus “more or less inapplicable outside that world” (so David Dorsey).
I confess that the dismissing of the Ten Commandments as a guide to Christian living alarms me greatly, especially when this position is taken up by purportedly Reformed Christians. Moreover, the premises for this maneuver seem remarkably weak to me. In short, the Ten Commandments are first declared indistinguishable from the over various rules and precepts of the Mosaic corpus, such as the one regulating what to do when an axe head flies off, and then, second, the Ten Commandments are relegated to the governance of merely a single ancient cultural and religious setting with little or not significance for Christians today. It would be hard to find a shift with more profound implications not only for Christian doctrine but also for our approach to daily living as followers of Christ. In a time when the church is continually feeling pressure to conform to the world, it is hard to imagine a posture that would be more damaging to the faith and witness of believers today.
In addressing this concern, I would like to offer four arguments for why the Ten Commandments should be seen as separate and distinct from the other rules and regulations of the Mosaic economy, and why the Ten Commandments do set forth the universally binding moral law of God that is intended to serve as a guide for the lives of believers of all times, including today.
1. The way that Ten Commandments were given informs us of their special and eternal significance.
Unlike the various rules and regulations that fill the pages of Exodus through Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses directly by God, having been written by the finger of God on tablets of stone (Ex. 24:12; 32:16). It is hard to imagine how God could have made a more suggestive statement regarding the timeless character of these ten priorities. The setting in which the Ten Commandments were given – atop Mount Sinai amidst clouds of storm and fire (Ex. 20:18) – also indicates the sacred status attached to this code of laws. To dismiss this significance of way God gave the Ten Commandments thus seems not only strange but also irreverent.
2. The way that the Ten Commandments were recorded in the Pentateuch shows their primary role in expressing God’s moral will.
In addition to how the Ten Commandments were given, we should consider how they were recorded within the Pentateuch. The book of Exodus sees Israel departing from Egypt, passing through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and then finally arriving at their destination at Mount Sinai. Exodus 20 then presents the Ten Commandments as a literary apex in the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. They go up to God’s mountain, they receive God’s law, and then Israel departs from the mountain of God. It is true that many other rules and laws are given, but none occupy the literary high ground given to the Ten Commandments. The same can be said about the priority of placement given to the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy, where it is given as the chief covenant demand set before Israel by the Lord.
3. The way that the tablets of the Ten Commandments were stored in the ark of the covenant associates their moral demands with the very character of God.
No one can deny that the Mosaic covenant including scores of different rules and commands, some dealing with the cultic life of the tabernacle and others regulating life within the nation. As the New Testament shows, these various rules (respectively, the ceremonial law and the civil law) are tied to the religious-cultural setting of Old Testament Israel. In contrast, the unique place given to the Ten Commandments was shown by the way its tablets were physically stored. Moses’ attitude toward this eternal moral law was seen in that he placed its tablets within the ark of the covenant (Dt. 10:5; Heb. 9:4). The ark of the covenant was the footstool of God and the special place of the glorious divine presence on earth. It is difficult to see how Moses could have given more special prominence to this particular legal code, assigning it not merely to the cultural setting of ancient Israel but also to the very person and character of God.
4. The way that the Ten Commandments were confirmed in the New Testament proves their abiding relevance and authority over the lives of Christians in the new covenant age.
While the above arguments are sufficient, I believe, to prove the eternally binding character of the Ten Commandments as the moral law of God, the question as to their applicability in the new covenant age is shown by the New Testament itself. Consider the following:
a. When Jesus was asked to summarize the law of God, he did so in terms of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments (Lk. 10:26-27). Clearly, our Lord distinguished the Ten Commandments as an abiding expression of God’s will, set on a higher pedestal than the miscellaneous rules of the Mosaic corpus.
b. The new covenant is set forth not as a repudiation but as the fulfillment of the old (Mosaic) covenant. Thus Hebrews 8:10 repeats Jeremiah 31:33 where God promises to “put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” The point of this statement is not that Christians are freed from the binding rule of the Ten Commandments but that the eternal moral law given through Moses would be placed within us by the inscribing work of the Holy Spirit. In short, the law that Christians are to internalize is the same law that was externalized on the tablets of the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
c. All Ten Commandments are explicitly confirmed in the New Testament, showing that unlike the other Mosaic rules this moral law transcends the ancient cultural-religious context of Israel.
This is disputed by those who would marginalize the Ten Commandments, but consider the following brief list, to which many more instances could be added:
1C: Mt. 4:10; Lk. 4:8; Mt. 6:24
2C: Acts 15:20; Acts 17:29-30
3C: Mt. 6:9; Mt. 15:8-9
4C: Mt. 24:20; Acts 16:13; Heb. 4:9
5C: Mt. 15:3-4; Eph. 6:1-3
6C: Mk. 10:19; Rom. 13:9
7C: Mk. 10:11-12; 1 Cor. 6:9
8C: Mk. 10:19; Eph. 4:28
9C: Mt. 15:19-20; Eph. 4:25
10C: Rom. 7:7; Eph. 5:3
I understand and appreciate the concerns of fellow Christians against the perils of legalism in stifling the spirituality of Christians. But this legitimate concern not only should not marginalize the Ten Commandments but it must not. When we consider the way the Ten Commandments were given, recorded, stored, and confirmed in the New Testament, we ought to extol the beauty and value of God’s moral law together with both David and Paul, those spiritual giants of the old and new covenants. We should affirm David when he sang, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7). And we should agree with Paul when far from setting aside the Ten Commandments, he placed them at the very height of Christian spirituality, declaring, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).