Most Britons think that only six of the Ten Commandments are still relevant. These were the results reported in a YouGov poll in recent weeks. It’s not hard to guess which ones have become unpopular: the first four relating to our duty to God. What is shocking but not surprising is that most of those professing to be Christians agreed. It hardly seems credible that 60% of Christians would not believe we should only worship the one true God. Any encouragement that the other commandments are still respected is undermined by the fact that the Godward aspect of morality is rejected. If most people are prepared to give this away, have we now lost the Ten Commandments?
Removing the first four commandments actually dispenses with the most important precepts. Christ summarises them as loving the Lord our God, with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind (Luke 10:27). Indeed, He calls this “the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:38). It comes before loving our neighbour as ourselves. Love to our neighbour should flow from love to God (1 John 5:1). Unless we have the faith that pleases God working by true love for Him we cannot truly love our neighbour.
The first four commandments deal with worship: (1) who we are to worship; (2) what ways we must worship Him; (3) how (in what manner) we must worship Him; (4) when we must worship Him. The other six deal with how we are to treat others and we can see it is in our self-interest to respect these. Yet proud unrenewed self can see no personal benefit in worshipping God even though it is the reason that we were created.
The connection that links the commandments together is so close that if the authority of God is despise in one, it is despised in all (James 2:10, 1 John 4:20). James Durham reflects on how the first four commandments deal with the worship, service and obedience which is due to God. It seems that the first four were written on one tablet of stone and the remaining six on the other (Deuteronomy 4:13). This would make the division into two parts (usually called two tables) something that God did from the beginning. This is supported by Christ summary of the commandments under the two main duties towards God and our neighbour. The two tables were put into the ark to emphasise the holiness of the law.
Durham makes the following points:
1. All the commandments of the second table share the same authority with the first. God spoke “all these words”. Indeed, it appears from Acts 7:38 that it was our Lord Jesus who spoke them.
2. Sins directly against the first part are greater then those against the second. It is for this reason that the first table is called the first and great commandment (Matthew 22:38).
3. In morals (if they are things of the same nature) the duties of the second table give place to the duties of the first table when they cannot be equally obeyed. This is so in the case of love to God and exercising love to our father and neighbour (Luke 14:26; Matthew 10:37). When obedience to God and obedience to our superiors cannot be consistent we are to obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19). We are to love the Lord and (comparatively) hate father and mother (Luke 14:6).
4. Note, however, that things required in the first table may for a time give place to moral duties in the second. For example, relieving or preserving our neighbour’s life when it is in danger, we may need to work on the sabbath day. This is in accordance with the “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” and “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath”.
Why do we need to study the Ten Commandments?
The deep ignorance about how the Ten Commandments fit together and the importance of the first table of the law shows that they are not understood. If people understood the full requirements of the other six commandments as they reach to our thoughts, words and desires as well as actions they would have far less general approval. Even if we have a commitment to all Ten Commandments, if we do not properly understand them we are in danger of losing them. It’s time to seek to understand them in the way that Scripture reveals their full meaning. James Durham makes the following points.
1. They are unique.
God uniquely announced them with His voice and then directly wrote them on two tablets of stone. These tablets of stone were afterwards commanded to be kept in the ark (Deuteronomy 10: 2, 5) and to be learned (Deuteronomy 5:1). They were to be written on the posts of the doors and diligently impressed on their children (Deuteronomy 6:7-10). Great emphasis is given to explaining these commandments by the prophets and apostles. The Saviour also does this in His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7).
2. They are useful.
Everyone who wants to know what is pleasing and displeasing to God will find them useful. By them we may know what sin is, how to avoid it and how to be stirred up to repentance when we have fallen into it. The knowledge of sin comes through the law (Romans 7:7). This is why it is summed up in so few words, to be more easily brought into and kept within our memories and hearts. This is why they are commended in the Word of God (Deuteronomy 5:1).
3. They are not understood.
The Ten Commandments are so comprehensive that we will come short of their great scope without effort and diligence (Psalm 119:96). There is great ignorance among many about the meaning of this vital part of Scripture. Many people do not even know that they are breaking the commandments. The result of this is little conviction of sin, little repentance for sin and much presumptuous confidence in self-righteousness.
Ignorance of the spiritual nature of the Ten Commandments makes many people neglect the main aspects of holiness, and instead proudly rest on self-righteousness and despise Christ the Mediator. We can see this from the example of Paul (Romans 7:9). Our Lord expounded the Ten Commandments so that sinners would see the necessity of a Mediator who is the end of the law for righteousness to all that believe (Romans 10:4). It is not only the godless, those who are most careful to observe religious formalities and upright in their lives, also stumble in this.
We need to know: (1) what kind of duties are required in every commandment, and (2) the sins which contradict each commandment. This should give us some direction and help in duty, and some spur to repentance, or at least conviction. By it we may therefore be led to Christ Jesus, who is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes (Romans 10:4). This was after all, the principal purpose of this law as it was given to Israel.
How should we study the Ten Commandments?
We need to know how to understand and apply the Ten Commandments properly. Without this we do not understand how to live according to and make use of the gospel. Gospel obedience involves conviction of sin, carefulness in practice, constant exercise of repentance and daily fresh dependence on the blood of Christ. All this is undermined by failure to understand the commandments aright. Here is some further advice from Durham on how to approach the study of the Ten Commandments.
1. Look on Them as God’s Word.
Receive it as though you heard God Himself speak it from Sinai. Tremble (as the people did) and be more affected by holy fear whenever you read, hear or meditate on it.
2. Pray to Understand Them
Be much in prayer for grace to understand its meaning. David (Psalm 119:18) prayed for this often. , and thought it not unbecoming a King, yea a believing King, and a Prophet, to study this Law, and pray much for opened eyes to understand the meaning thereof.
3. Understand so as to Practise Them
Practise is the goal of knowledge. It is also the aim of the law itself (Deuteronomy 5:1-2). we knowing no more in Gods account then what we endeavour honestly to practise. Failure in aiming to put things into practise makes us very careless and undermines both understanding and practise.
4. Examine Yourself by Them
When you hear and understand anything to be either duty or sin, reflect on yourself. Test whether this sin is in you and how far short you come in that duty. This is the proper way to use the law. It is intended to reveal sin and transgression (Romans 7:7-8). This is why it is called a glass or mirror (James 1:23-24). Look in it so that you may know what kind of person you are and what blemishes are on you.
5. Be Convicted by Them and Repent
When the law reveals sin let convictions in. The law entered that sin might abound, not in practise but in the convictions of conscience (Romans 5:20). Follow these Convictions by repentance till they force you to flee to Christ, and leave you there.
6. Use the Rest of Scripture to Understand Them
Receive help to understand this part of Scripture from Christ’s sermons and the prophets. They are the only canonical (and therefore the best) commentary on the Ten Commandments.
7. Use the Larger Catechism to Understand Them
But do not despise the understanding contained in human writings such as the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q.91-152). The Larger Catechism is very full in relation to this and if you make best use of it conscientiously, it will prove exceeding profitable for your instruction.
We have produced a new booklet sets out ten biblical principles for understanding and applying the Ten Commandments properly. Beyond the Surface: Ten Ways in Which the Ten Commandments Go Further Than You Think is a 10 page booklet updated from the writings of James Durham. Many people understand the Ten Commandments in a superficial way without understand how deep and broad they are in relation to our inward and outward lives, in things that we ought to do and avoid. You can preview a sample of the booklet and purchase it here.