In LD 34 and following, the catechism embarks on a discussion of the law. At first glance, you might think that it teaches about the Ten Commandments. Indeed, the Ten Commandments are the organizational principle of this part of the catechism. It is like a coat rack with ten pegs. But what is hanging on each peg—the content of the various questions and answers—is not just these commandments. It is not even the Old Testament law of Moses. The catechism teaches, as it should, Christian principles. They are related to the Ten Commandments, but they are also broader in scope and touch our lives more deeply.
In the following lessons we will consider the Ten Commandments one by one; but we will only profit from it if we understand the broader, Christian framework. We have not pitched our tents at the foot of Mt. Sinai 2400 years ago. We live in the perspective of the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And that should make our understanding of the law so much richer!
In this lesson I want to explore that Christian framework around the law in more detail. We begin with the observation that when the Bible presents the Ten Commandments, it does not start with commandment #1. It starts with a personal declaration of our Lord. “I am the LORD, your God, who set you free from bondage.” The starting point of all of the law is that we already have a relationship with the Lord, and that he has set us free from slavery. What follows in the Ten Commandments, and elsewhere in the Bible, may therefore be called—
The Law of freedom
1. The guide to good works
2. The constitution of the Kingdom
3. The life filled with love
The guide to good works
“What is the law of the LORD?” asks the catechism in LD 34; but that question does not come out of the blue. It goes back to the previous question and answer: “But what are good works?” Real good works are holy, in their source (from true faith), their purpose (for God’s glory), and also in their content. Not based on human ideas of right and wrong, but based on God’s law. Go a step back, to the beginning of Lord’s Day 32; there we are reminded that good works naturally belong to the life of faith. We do good works because Jesus Christ, who redeemed us through his death on the cross, also renews us into his image by his Spirit.
This we must always keep in mind when approaching the Ten Commandments, and LD 34-44 in the Heidelberg Catechism. If we forget this, we can easily become legalists, for whom the law is a burden we must keep to earn God’s favor, or a cudgel to beat others over the head with. When we study “remember the Sabbath” or “you shall not commit adultery” or any other commandment, it stands in the light of the gracious introduction: “I am the LORD, your God, who delivered you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage!” And as New Testament Christians, understanding that the deliverance from Egypt was an analogy and a precursor of the greater salvation we have, we hear: “I am the Lord Jesus Christ, your God, who set you free from your sin and misery, and give you new life through the Holy Spirit!” And therefore we have a keen interest in knowing what good works look like, and how we can grow in holiness.
Then we ask: Lord, I pledge my whole life as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to you. How would you like me to live? The law of the Lord—with its Ten Commandments and all its further instruction—points the way. Basic principles for important areas of life. What are the most important things to keep in mind for worship activity: that we serve only one God, without trying to catch him in our own images, that we respect his holiness, and reserve time for worship. And what are the most important things in dealing with the things and people of this world: respect for the structures of authority, for human life, for sexual purity, for material possessions, and for truth. Lord, show me how to truly love you and love others, and how to put that into practice.
The constitution of the Kingdom
But as Christians we may not stop at the Ten Commandments. It is our confession that the Lord has spoken his greatest word yet in Jesus Christ, our Saviour. “The only-begotten Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1:18) Jesus showed us more clearly who the Lord is, not only in his death and resurrection, but also in his preaching and teaching. Jesus revealed to us the Kingdom of God in a way not known before, and we are called to live in that Kingdom. This is why we should not stop at the law of Moses and the Ten Commandments, but especially consider Jesus’ Kingdom teaching.
Not that Jesus contradicted the Ten Commandments. He made that very clear in Mat. 5:18. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Some Christian communities dismiss the Ten Commandments as no longer relevant for the New Testament church; they are mistaken. But it would be just as big a mistake to engage with the Ten Commandments apart from the fulfillment Jesus gave them.
We see this very clearly in Jesus’ interaction with that rich young ruler, who asked: What should I do to inherit the Kingdom of God? Jesus first mentioned the Ten Commandments. “I have done all these things,” the young man said. Then Jesus added: “Give all what you have to the poor, and you will be perfect.” Here we recognize that our Lord Jesus and his Kingdom teaching are superior to the Law that came through Moses. The apostle John wrote it this way: “The law was given to Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
In Matthew 5-7 and in Luke 6 we find Jesus’ so-called “Sermon on the Mount”; this teaching of Jesus has rightly been called “the constitution of the Kingdom of God”. In these chapters, Jesus interacts with some of the Ten Commandments, and shows how underneath them is the greater principle of love. “You shall not kill” becomes “you shall not hate and call people names”; “you shall not commit adultery” becomes “you shall not lust.” While these commandments are sharpened and brought down to the level of the heart, Jesus also proclaimed Kingdom blessing: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven!” I would argue that the teachings of Jesus, especially in this Sermon on the Mount, are more foundational than the Ten Commandments. That point is made in Hebrews 2:1-4: the message revealed by angels—that is, the Law—was reliable and required obedience; but the message declared by the Son of God himself—the gospel of salvation—demands even more attention.
Jesus himself understood his preaching to be superior to the Ten Commandments. When Moese taught the law to the Israelites, he had said (Deut. 6:3): “Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you;” and Jesus echoes these words at the end of his Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 7:24): “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” For the followers of Jesus, his instructions carry at least the same weight as the commandments of old.
The question “How should we live?” or “What are good works?” is answered most fully in the teachings of Jesus about the Kingdom of heaven. Believers are united to Jesus Christ and citizens of that Kingdom, which has already come and one day will fill the earth. If we live in that Kingdom, let us make sure to be very familiar with its constitution, with its principles, and with the good works that are common to the life of that Kingdom.
I draw two practical conclusions from this. First, when it comes to Christian ethics, the question of what we should and shouldn’t do, we must prioritize the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. The Ten Commandments can be helpful, and provide a good structure for the catechism in LD 34-44, but as we study them we must especially listen to what the New Testament teaches on these matters. It is interesting that the oldest catechism we know of, the so-called Didache from the end of the first century, teaches ethics from the gospels rather than from the Ten Commandments. We certainly should become at least as familiar with the sayings of our Lord Jesus as with the Ten Commandments.
A second conclusion, and proposal, is that there is room for improvement in our Reformed liturgy. Centuries ago, John Calvin introduced the practice of singing the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the worship service, with the congregation saying, “Lord, have mercy!” between the commandments. From this we have inherited the custom of reading the Ten Commandments every Sunday. I would suggest that we have at least as much reason to read the fuller teaching of Jesus and his apostles on this matter. Not only the summary of Mat. 22 (“you shall love the Lord and your neighbor as yourself”), but for instance the beatitudes from Mat. 5, the instruction about living by the Spirit in Gal. 5, the call to present our lives as sacrifice of thanksgiving in Rom. 12, the many practical instructions about the life of love the church should live.
I am aware that for some, the reading of the Ten Commandments every week is like a marker of faithfulness of a church. Let me be clear: churches that ignore and downplay the ethical teachings of the Bible, are in great danger of sliding off. We must be reminded frequently of the way of holiness, our sinfulness, and the need for salvation and the Holy Spirit. But we should not make it more than the custom it is. The weekly reading of the Ten Commandments is not commanded in Scripture, not encoded in our confessions, not even agreed on in our church order; Several churches that we recognize as faithful churches, such as the OPC, do not have this practice at all. Some of our URC sister churches have implemented the practice of alternating the Ten Commandments with ethical readings from the New Testament, and to my knowledge this has only benefited these churches.
This is a liturgical proposal, a practical matter that we can discuss together. But the principle must be acknowledged as a principle of Scripture: With the coming of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom preaching, we have been given something better than the law, even better than the Ten Commandments, and as the church covenant we must give it the place of honor. It is through Jesus Christ that we get to know the will of God most fully.
The life filled with love
So what does it look like, for the New Testament church, to live according to the law of God as fully revealed in Jesus Christ? The apostle James speaks of “the perfect law, the law of liberty,” which leads to pure religion: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas 1:25-27)
And the apostle Paul agrees. In Gal. 5, among other passages, he reminds us that our calling is liberty, to be really free. Free, because Jesus has taken out of the grasp of evil and brought us into the light of salvation, into the freedom of the children of God. But that freedom is not to be abused. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Freedom to love. That is what Christian ethics comes down to. People who have been released from the power of sin will use that freedom to live the life of the Spirit. And the first fruit of that Spirit is deep, spiritual, genuine love. Without love, neither religious ritual nor precise law-keeping means anything. To quote Paul again, If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3) But with real love, given by the Holy Spirit, we become the kind of people who belong in the Kingdom of heaven, and in whom the Lord has great delight.
In the lessons to come we will study the law of the Lord, following the structure of the Ten Commandments. Let us do so as people of Jesus’ Kingdom. For each of the ten commandments, I hope to show especially how it allows us to love God and others in the freedom that we have. The Lord Jesus Christ is your God, and he has delivered you from bondage, made you free from the power of sin, and called you to genuine love. It is because of that freedom that you shall have no other gods…
May the Lord himself teach us to live well, and grow us in wisdom and love.