The Ten Commandments and Church

Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002

The Question…

Dear Rev. Schlissel,

Our minister is opposed to the public reading of the Ten Commandments each Lord’s Day in a worship service. Should we be concerned?

Fretting in Philadelphia

The Answer…

Dear Fretting,

Your son does not come down to dinner. Should you be concerned? Well, it all depends on why he doesn’t come down, doesn’t it? If he is ill or angry or missing—each of these would be causes for concern in varying degrees. But if he is at that hour keeping a commitment he had made to feed the poor at a local mission, there is no need for alarm. So, too, with your minister’s opposition to the reading of the Ten Commandments each Lord’s Day. The amount of concern is directly proportionate to the reason for his opposition.

If he thinks that various portions of Scripture can be read as Law, so long as they contain imperatives from the King, that is fine (though there are still good reasons to frequently employ the Ten Commandments). In such a case he would be veering from the detail of a tradition but not from its intent or purpose. The moral law, after all, is (to use the language of Westminster) “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments, not exhaustively explicated. Therefore it is legitimate to read other places as summary prescriptions of God’s will. Ephesians 4:22 to 5:20 or Leviticus 19:1-18 come to mind as excellent portions of Scripture for this purpose.

If your pastor thinks that the Ten Commandments should be read but not necessarily every Lord’s Day, then I would be interested in knowing his reasoning. Perhaps he thinks that skipping one week would make people more attentive to the reading the following week. While this seems a rather weak reason, it is not a cause for very serious concern.

It may be that your pastor thinks the Law has been unintermittently set forth to the congregation as little more than an “indictor” and he now wants the people to appreciate it more fully. That is, he may have observed that the Law is not loved in your church and he might suspect that it’s place in the weekly service has reinforced in the minds of the people the erroneous notion that the Law (as given by God to us) stands only as an indictment and not as a means of grace. In this case he is well-motivated but would likely find that a plan other than the one he proposes would be more effective in accomplishing his goal.

But if your minister is opposed to the reading of the Law because he has been infected with the Dispensational notion that the Law of God stands opposed to the grace of God, then you have a serious problem.

When I speak about this particular “Dispensational notion,” I’m sorry to say that it is not one confined to churches following the Plymouth Brethren/Scofield system in any of its thousand varying iterations. In fact, even many Reformed churches have been infected with this notion (though usually—and thankfully—inconsistently): the idea that the New Testament itself speaks against the Law of God per se.

Robert L. Dabney addressed this error in his Systematic Theology (Lecture XXXVII, The Covenant of Grace). “(T)he strong representations which [some] writers, and, yet more, the Cocceian school, give of the bondage, terror, literalness, and intolerable weight of the institutions under which the Old Testament saints lived, will strike the attentive reader as incorrect. The experience, as recorded of those saints, does not answer to this theory; but shows them in the enjoyment of a dispensation free, spiritual, gracious, consoling…. These distorted representations have been produced through the seeming force of such passages as John 1:17; 2 Cor. 3:6,7; Gal 3:19,23; 4:1,4, 24-26; Heb 8:8; Acts 15:10. But the scope and circumstances of the Apostles, in making such statements, are greatly overlooked. They were arguing for the gospel plan, against self-righteous Jews, who had perversely cast away the gospel significance out of the Mosaic institutions to which they clung, and who retained only the condemning features of those institutions; vainly hoping to make a righteousness out of compliance with a law, whose very intent was to remind men that they could make no righteousness for themselves. Hence we must always remember that the Apostles are using, to a certain extent, an argumentum ad hominem: they are speaking of the Mosaic institutions under the [erroneous] Jewish view of them. They are treating of that side or aspect, which alone the perverse Jew retained of them. Here is the key” Dabney properly argued, to understanding these New Testament passages which seemingly speak against the Law.

The context of the giving of the Law itself reveals the grace in light of which the Law is properly to be viewed. “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). The unbelieving Jews abstracted the Law from the Christ therein revealed. Many modern churchmen have abstracted Christ from the Law He established. Both errors are deadly.

It is with good cause that Reformed symbols typically contain expositions of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Both are necessary for the thankful life. In one passage we hear the Lord speak to His church, in the other His church responding in faith:

God speaks:

I am the Lord your God

No visible representation may be made of Me.

Do not misuse My name.

Remember the Sabbath of Creation and Redemption.

The Church responds:

You are our Father

Amen. You are in heaven.

Hallowed be Thy name!

We look forward to the Sabbath of the Consummation. Your Kingdom come!

Much more could be said. We’ll confine ourselves to this one thought: the church is the set-apart people of God, His treasured possession. This idea of set-apartness, sacredness, is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of the faith. The Ten Commandments serve as the guardians of the sacred and therefore ought frequently to be heard among us:

The First Command tells us that God is absolutely and uniquely sacred.

The Second Command, sometimes trivialized as conveying to us little more than the so-called Regulative Principle of Worship, in fact is the guardian of the true sacredness of man. We must not make images of God because He has already made one: us. And it is His purpose in Christ is to renew that image in us. Therefore we are commanded “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

The Third Command is the guardian of the sacredness of all God has revealed.

The Fourth Command guards the one day each week which God has pronounced sacred.

The Fifth Command guards the sacredness of order in human relations, beginning in the family.

The Sixth Command guards the sacredness of life.

The Seventh Command guards the sacredness of marriage.

The Eighth Command guards the sacredness of private property.

The Ninth Command guards the sacredness of truth, honor, and the courts.

The Tenth Command guards the sacredness of each man’s domain.

Against all this, I do not think the church or the world is advantaged by removing from public worship the declaration of God’s Law as summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments. The world has thrown the whole of God’s Law to the wind. What hope remains if the church fails to treasure it?


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