Though we have previously written quite a number of articles on the Moral Law, nevertheless we feel constrained to devote further consideration of the Divine Decalogue. Some of our reasons for so doing are as follows:

  • The great importance which God Himself attaches to the same.
  • We are fully persuaded that there cannot possibly be any solidly grounded hope of a genuine revival of godliness among believers and of morality among unbelievers until the Ten Commandments are again given their proper place in our affections, thoughts, and lives.
  • Some of our friends have requested us to do so.
  • Quite a number of our readers have been erroneously taught thereon—some by Dispensationalists, others by Antinomians.

There are two things which are indispensable to the Christian's life: a clear knowledge of duty, and a conscientious practice of the same 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 God's 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 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 in the Scriptures, and in the Ten Commandments we have a summary of the same.

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 typical cleansing from all external pollution, before they were ready to stand in the presence of God (Exodus 19:10-11)—teaching 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 (Exodus 19:12-13)—teaching us that God is infinitely superior to us and due our utmost reverence and intimating 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), designed to affect them with an awe for His authority and to signify that if God was so terrible in the giving of the Law, He will be all the more when He comes to judge us for its violation!

  • When God had delivered the Ten Words, so greatly affected were the people that they entreated Moses to act as an arbiter and interpreter between God and them (Exodus 20:18-19), denoting 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; 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:21).

  • Accordingly, Moses went up into the mount and received the Law inscribed by God's 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), prefiguring the Law of Nature written on our hearts of creation, broken when we fell in Adam and re-written 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 therefrom? Is not an attempt to over-awe men's 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: 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.

Their Uniqueness

Their uniqueness 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 man's 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 spoken—none 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 safe keeping. Thus, in the unique honor conferred upon the Decalogue itself we may perceive its paramount importance in the Divine government.

Their Foundation—Love

Far too little emphasis has been placed upon their Divine preface:

Exodus 20:1-2 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, proceeding from God in the character of their gracious Redeemer as well as their righteous Lord, which of course embodied the all-important principle that redemption carries in its bosom a conformity to the Divine order. We must then recognize this relation of the Decalogue, as well in those who received it as in Him who gave it, to the grand principle of love, for only thus could there be a conformity 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" (Exodus 20:6)—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 (Matthew 22:37-40).

Their Perpetuity

That the Decalogue is binding upon every man in each succeeding generation is evident from many considerations:

  1. First, as the necessary and unchanging expression of God's rectitude, its authority over all moral agents becomes inevitable; the character of God Himself must change before the Law (the rule of His government) could be revoked. It was the Law 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.

  2. Second, Christ Himself rendered to the Law a perfect obedience, thereby leaving us an example that we should follow His steps (1 John 2:6).

  3. Third, the Apostle to the Gentiles specifically raised the question, "Do we then make void the Law through faith?" and answered, "God forbid: yea, we establish the Law" (Romans 3:31).

  4. Finally, the perpetuity of the Law appears in God's writing it in the hearts of His people at their new birth (Jeremiah 31:33).

The Number of Commandments

Having looked at the promulgation, the uniqueness, the springs, and the perpetuity of the Moral Law, we pass on to say a word upon the number of its commandments, ten being indicative of their completeness. This is emphasized in Scripture by their being expressly designated "the Ten Words" (Exodus 34:28), 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 until the same number had been reached—when they had "sinned these ten times" (Numbers 14:22) they had filled up the measure of their iniquities. Hence, too, 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.

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 comprehends the sum of righteousness, separates them into two distinct groups, the first respecting our obligations toward God, and the second our obligations toward man—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 worshipers 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 Lord's name in vain, while the most punctilious worship is rejected by Him while I 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. But 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"—on 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.

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 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.

Their Office

  1. The first use of the Moral Law is to reveal the only righteousness which is acceptable to God, and at the same time reveal to us our 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 God's Law, we are made aware of our groundless insolence, convicted of our pollution and guilt, and become conscious of our lack of strength to do what is required of us.

    Thus the Law is like a mirror in which we behold our impotence, our iniquity which proceeds from it, and the consequence of both our obnoxiousness to the curse.1
  2. Its second use is to restrain the wicked, who though they have no concern for God's 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.

  3. Third, the Law is the believer's rule of life—to direct him and keep him dependent upon Divine grace.

Their Sanctions

Not only has the Lord brought us under infinite obligations for having redeemed us from sin's 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. "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities 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" (Exodus 20:5-6)—thus we are informed that those who perform His bidding shall not labor in vain, and neither shall rebels escape with impunity.

Their Proper Interpretation

"Thy commandment" said the Psalmist "is exceeding broad" (Psalm 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 us 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 to be more specific:

  1. 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.

  2. Second, when any vice is forbidden, the contrary virtue is enjoined, and when any virtue is commanded, the contrary vice is condemned. As in the Third Commandment God forbids the taking of His name in vain, so, by necessary consequence, the hallowing of His name is commanded; and as the Eighth Commandment forbids stealing, so it requires the contrary duty of earning our living and paying for what we receive (Ephesians 4:28).

Taken from Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. 20, No. 1–2, January–February 1941.


  1. ^John Calvin.

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