One of the more controversial positions of Confessional Reformed churches is our conviction that the Ten Commandments ought to be preached as an ethical code for Christians to follow.
It seems strange that there would be any contention on this point; ours has been the standard Christian understanding of the law for centuries. However, on one extreme fringe of Christianity are those who argue that it is contrary to the gospel to preach any ethical standard. Nearer to the center is a great mass of Evangelicals trained by the dispensational hermeneutic to reject robotically any ethical standard found in the Old Testament. Even among non-dispensational Calvinists a large number of football fans may be found who will allow the dispensational hermeneutic to reclassify the Ten Commandments if it will allow them to leave church early to catch the Packers. Confessional Christians are left falling over ourselves trying to explain that the moral use of the law is not a form of justification by works.
Of particular interest to those Confessionalists who wish to be strictly biblical (as any true Confessionalist must be) is the question of whether or not New Testament believers utilized the Commandments in the same manner that we do. It is easy enough to point to the application of specific Commandments, but how do we make the argument for the Commandments as a unique group?
One interesting argument arises from Ephesians 6:1-3:
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
Before we dig too deeply into what this passage tells us about the law we ought to acknowledge that some of our Presbyterian brethren would use verse 1 to establish the existence of the Covenant Child. Some Presbyterians may argue that Paul is saying that the children in the Ephesian church are all “in the Lord,” thus in covenant with God. We need only to encourage our friends to consider the full weight of Paul’s characteristic usage of “in the Lord,” “in Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” and even “in him,” and then to consider whether they really wish to make this argument. How they will avoid ensnarement in the Federal Vision is beyond me.
Moreover, it may be observed that other explanations are available. Paul’s letter is addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” (There’s that characteristic phrase again!) Is it possible that the “children” he addresses in chapter 6 are exclusively those who are “faithful saints,” which is to say more than merely “covenant children”? Even if we accept that Paul is stepping aside from addressing the faithful saints in Ephesus in order to speak to all the children present at the reading of his letter, it could well be that he is only reminding them that obedience, while a good thing, will not suffice. To walk with God they must obey in the Lord.
“In the Lord,” is then inconclusive as to telling us what the spiritual state of these children was. It is not insignificant, though, in identifying the place of the law, something on which Confessional Baptists and Presbyterians agree. We will return to this in a moment.
What we can say of these children is that they were the offspring of the adult members of the Ephesian church. They were young enough to be living under the authority of their parents. In fact, given Paul’s use of “children” in verse 4, they were still being “brought up.” Their relative youth is not insignificant. The letter to the Ephesians was written roughly ten years after the establishment of the Ephesian church. The children capable of hearing and understanding Paul’s letter would then include some who had been born after the gospel had arrived in Ephesus, others who were very small when Paul first came, and perhaps a few who remembered well the Apostle’s two-year ministry and the riot which brought it to an end.
We might also fairly say that some of these children must have been Jews and others Gentiles. As was so often the case in Paul’s ministry, their church was born out of a split within the synagogue. Some Jews believed the message of Christ, but not all. When the believers had moved on, Paul proclaimed the Word of God to both Jews and Greeks. The church was therefore a good example of the ethnic and cultural mixture which on so many occasions proved explosive in the New Testament era. Paul in particular was always watchful lest anyone import the abrogated regulations of the Old Testament and begin to enforce them upon the church. He didn’t want anyone to start circumcising Gentile boys in Ephesus!
What did Paul have to say to these children, some of whom he may have remembered fondly from their infancy? His instruction is unremarkable: he encourages obedience to their parents. What makes this passage relevant to the discussion of the law is the manner in which Paul delivered this ethical instruction.
In the first place we must examine what Paul meant by the phrase “the first commandment with a promise.” Was this the first thing God ever told anyone to do to which he appended a promise? Actually, the very latest point in revealed history at which God could be said to first append a promise to a command is recorded in Genesis 6. “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…but I will establish my covenant with you.” When God said, “that you may live long in the land” He had long since established the pattern of promising blessing to those who obeyed Him.
But when did God say those words? Certainly we all realize that Paul is quoting from what is commonly called “the Ten Commandments.” He is citing both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, combining the two wordings of the promise given by God to the Israelites.
Pause for a moment to consider the significance of Paul’s application of that promise. He sees no difficulty in telling a group of Jewish and Gentile children who have been born and raised in the New Testament era that they ought to obey a Commandment of God in order to receive a blessing. This was intended to be read to the Ephesian church mere minutes after the words “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In the blink of an eye the Apostle obliterated the entire doctrinal edifice of any who would deny the legitimacy of a moral code in the religion of grace.
But let us return to the word “first.” If Paul didn’t mean “the first command of this sort God ever gave,” then he had to mean “the first of the Commandments in a list,” and the obvious citation of both Deuteronomy and Exodus leaves no doubt as to what that list was. It is that which the Bible itself calls “the Ten Commandments,” or the first Commandment of those that children often memorize. (That it also happens to be the last which includes a promise is immaterial, as we will see.)
Here is why this matters: Paul obviously expected the children of the Ephesians – young Jews and Gentiles being “brought up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” by converted, New Testament parents – to know what he was talking about. Did he expect too much of them? Would children in church today understand him?
What Paul is doing here is something common to pastors, at least to pastors like himself who expect children to be paying attention when important messages are communicated in church. He is addressing the children by way of citing something they already know well. Preachers will often make a point of singling out the children in the congregation and then making their point by quoting a common memory verse. You may hear them recite words from a catechism or children’s hymn that is regularly used in the Sunday School. The reason is that preachers understand that children learn best if they can associate the new lesson with something they already know.
The implications of this cannot be avoided. Paul obviously expected the children in Ephesus to be very familiar with the Ten Commandments – probably he knew that they had them memorized. He had been a pastor to the older ones for two years; perhaps they had heard him list the Commandments by way of making moral application, as was his practice. He expected them to recognize the citation, to start thinking about his commentary on it, to run through the first four commandments in their heads, and to say, “You know what, he’s right! None of the first four Commandments include a promise!” He did this, moreover, for a rather obvious reason. He wanted them to obey the Fifth Commandment and receive the blessing which it promised.
The children in the Ephesian church learned the Ten Commandments.
Let us be clear on this point. Jewish and Gentile children in the Church of Ephesus, young enough still to be subject to being “brought up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” were learning the Ten Commandments. They were learning the Commandments a decade after the establishment of a Christian church in their city and nearly three decades after the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord. They had probably memorized the Commandments, a fact we may glean from the Apostle’s assumption that they would immediately recognize his citation, place it in context of the well-established list of commands, and understand the meaning of his description of this Commandment as “the first with a promise.”
Neither their ethnicity nor their participation in a New Testament church prohibited them from learning the Commandments of God. These were not Jewish-Christian adults who had grown up memorizing the Commandments in the synagogue. They were the children of Christians, instructed in the Christian faith from their earliest years by parents who had learned at the feet of the Apostle most associated with the theology of grace, yet they knew the Ten Commandments well. Do our children know them also?
The Ten Commandments were utilized in the Ephesian church for ethical instruction.
There was no need for Paul to explain why he was applying the Fifth Commandment in an ethical manner to the children of Christians. He does not qualify this Commandment as “the first with a promise, and also one of those that still apply to us.” He does not need to cite the statements of Jesus about the same Commandment. He does not even fall back on his own authority as an apostle. No further justification is necessary for Paul to make an ethical application here beyond the mere citation of the Ten Commandments.
It should be evident to us that this was common practice among the Ephesians and their children. Paul was doing something which the children had heard before, both at church and at home. He was reminding them of the Commandments of God and telling them to obey. Anyone who would disagree with the use of the Commandments in the same fashion must first account for the Apostle’s practice.
Obedience to the ethical requirements of the Ten Commandments was expected of converted persons.
At this point the phrase “in the Lord” becomes critical. Paul’s instruction to the children is to obey their parents as those who have been united together with Christ. For our purposes it matters not to which children he is speaking. He may be speaking to children who are already united to Christ and urging them to obey. He may be urging unconverted children to obey, but reminding them also that only that obedience which is performed while united to Christ is pleasing to God. In either case, obedience is expected from them as those united to Christ.
This shows that the Apostle is not engaged in the second use of the law, but rather the third. He is not encouraging them to make an attempt at fleshly law-keeping in the hopes that their inevitable failure will drive them to Christ; rather he is convinced that in Christ they both can and should keep the law. Thus we may conclude that the ethical application of the Ten Commandments has both relevance and power for the Christian. He should keep the Commandments, and because he is in Christ he is able to keep the commandments.
Christian obedience to the Ten Commandments was expected to lead to blessings from God.
At the same time we discover that Paul intends to communicate that the principle of God’s blessing upon obedience applies in the life of Christians just as it did in the lives of Old Testament Jews. Many Evangelicals stumble over this point. It sounds to them like a form of works salvation, but it cannot be. Not only has Paul just said that salvation is by grace through faith and not of works, he also is encouraging the children to obey the Commandments as persons already united to Christ. Only that obedience will lead to blessing.
index“…that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” may mean many things, but it cannot mean that obedience to parents will lead to membership in the kingdom of God. That status already belongs to anyone who is “in the Lord.” He does mean that blessings abound to those who faithfully keep the Commandments in union with Jesus Christ. Christians should not be afraid to say that God blesses obedience. Saying so did not make Paul a moralistic synergist, and it will not make one of any faithful preacher of the gospel.
No less than the Apostle Paul participated in this use of the Ten Commandments.
Perhaps the most fascinating detail of this passage is its author. This was not written by James, whose epistle is so freighted with moral application that some Evangelicals cringe in its presence. Nor was it written by Peter, who struggled inconsistently against those who wished to import Jewish exceptionalism into the gospel. It was written by Paul, the Apostle of Grace, whose ministry was defined by his opposition to those who would replace the gospel with moralism.
Even Paul had no qualms about encouraging people to render obedience to the Ten Commandments in the Lord in order to receive blessings from Him. If we classify that sort of moral application as outside the Christian faith, the very definition of the faith must descend into chaos. If the Apostle to the Gentiles taught a sub-Christian gospel, is it possible that any Gentiles can be saved?
Ethical application of the Ten Commandments does not constitute surrender to the error of the Judaizers.
We must then conclude that the modern church has grossly misunderstood the nature of Paul’s controversy with the Judaizers. Time and again Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was threatened by the “Party of the Pharisees,” a group that had brought Pharisaical prejudices with them into the church and who endeavored to force Gentile converts to become fully Jewish before they could be accepted as brothers in Christ. Acts 15 and the opening chapters of Galatians describe this ongoing conflict in detail. It is now commonplace to define this early controversy as a struggle over the practices of using any Old Testament law as a basis for moral application and of propagating a theory of the Christian life in which God blesses obedience. Those who define “liberty” as a total abandonment of the Old Testament or as a total escape from the principle of reward have embraced this misconception.
If Paul, who contended vigorously against “the circumcision party,” could tell a group of children in Ephesus to render obedience to the Fifth Commandment, to think of that Commandment as part of the Ten, to obey as those united to Christ, and to expect the blessing of God in their lives as a consequence – if Paul did that, then the modern understanding of the Judaizer controversy is plainly and painfully inadequate.
We have little choice but to admit that if we would preach as Paul preached, we must be willing to apply the Ten Commandments as an ethical standard by which redeemed persons ought to live. It is folly to try to be more Pauline than Paul. His abhorrence of any confusion of the law with the gospel did not prevent him from acknowledging the Ten Commandments as a moral guide. Why should it prevent us?
At least we must say certain things with regard to the Fifth Commandment. We ought to teach children to obey their parents. We should teach them to do so because it is a command of God. We should teach them that in doing so they place themselves in the stream of God’s blessings. But we should also teach them that only obedience in Christ is true obedience in the eyes of God. Thus grace is assured its place while we do not fail in our duty to deliver faithful instruction from the law.
indexBeyond the Fifth Commandment, we ought to acknowledge that it will be difficult indeed to teach obedience in the same way that Paul did unless we utilize the Ten Commandments as a summary of the moral law of God. Some would argue that we only have license to apply those Commandments which are expressly reiterated in the New Testament. The conclusions reached from an examination of this passage suggest otherwise. Paul was not just teaching from the Fifth Commandment, which Jesus did indeed reiterate, he was instead teaching from the Ten Commandments as a recognized summary of moral instruction. The burden lies not with those who would teach the whole of the Commandments, but rather with those who would eliminate some.
Our view is that the moral law of God actually is what the laws of the Medes and Persians only aspired to be – immutable and irretractable. Although God expressly abrogated much of the Old Testament Code, He did not abrogate all. He removed the priesthood and its sacrifices, the dietary laws and laws of separation, and the separate civil code for His people. However, given the fact that His Apostle made use of the Ten Commandments as a continuing ethical standard, is it not reasonable to ask where He ever abrogated one of the Ten Commandments?
Of course you might wish to argue that Jesus did abrogate the Fourth Commandment. That argument will be harder to make in light of the evident familiarity of the Ephesian children with the entire Decalogue. Furthermore, to make this argument you must prove two things. First, you must demonstrate that when Jesus called Himself “Lord” of something He did so in order to say that it was no longer important. Second, you must argue that the Pharisees were faithful and reliable interpreters of the Law of God. Since I do not envy you that task, I gladly leave it to you.
By Tom Chantry at CHANTRY NOTES.