• Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Rule #2 for Rightly Understanding the Ten Commandments

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. Romans 7:14NKJV


Question 99 of the Larger Catechism, asks, "What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments?" In its answer the Catechism gives eight rules. Here is the second one: "For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed: 2. That it is spiritual, and so reacheth the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul; as well as words, works, and gestures." Last week we saw how the Ten Commandments enjoin perfect obedience and condemn the slightest transgression.  This week we look at their spiritual focus.

Citing the above Scripture, the Catechism declares that "the law is spiritual." I am convinced that many in the Church today do not believe this Biblical truth. If it is mentioned at all, the law is considered to be, at best, a necessary evil. How often have you heard God's perfect law of love and liberty maligned in the following ways:

  1. The law is that hard and punishing thing that Jesus in His love delivered me from.

  2. The law is God's punishment on sinful man, which came about as a result of the Fall.

  3. The law keeps the wicked in check and is what God gives you if you reject His grace.

  4. God's grace, love, and mercy have saved me from His strict, punishing, cursing law.

As God's Word so often says, "May it never be!" The law is not cruel, punishing, or cursing. The law is good, perfect, and a blessing. It is the "law of Christ," (Gal. 6:2); the "law of liberty," (James 1:25); the law of love (Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14). It is our sin that causes God's good law to condemn us. God's law does not come to us out of judgment, but it is given to us out of love. And if we love God we will keep His commandments (John 14:15); for the love of God IS that we keep His commandments (1 John 5:3).

Moreover, because the Ten Commandments summarize all righteousness they do not merely address our flesh, but our spirits. Notice how this answer of the Catechism is firmly grounded in a bipartite view of man. According to the Catechism, because the law is "spiritual" it addresses all of the "powers of the soul," including the "understanding," "will," and "affections." Thus, the Catechism, like the Scriptures, uses the words "soul" and "spirit" interchangeably to refer to that whole part of man that is not physical.  God created man from the dust and He breathed the breath of life into man. Man is physical and spiritual, body and soul, flesh and spirit, and he is to glorify God in his whole being, with all that he is. Therefore, by definition the Commandments must address not just man's physical appetites and behaviors, but all of his mind and heart.

Accordingly, Jesus taught that it was not just the act of adultery that transgressed the 7th commandment, but the desire to do it also broke the law: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart," (Matt. 5:27-28). Notice that when a man looks at a woman in order to lust after her, he is committing adultery, not with his flesh but with his heart. Here, clearly the word "heart" does not refer to the physical muscle in the chest, but to the mind, which is to say, the soul or spirit.

God's law commands our spirits. That is, our affections, our imaginations, our desires, our longings, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our wills; in short all of our thinking and all of our feelings are under the law of God. The Ten Commandments are to the whole man, body and soul. Every thought, word, action, and emotion is addressed by the law of God. However, this fact does not just show us how many ways we can sin against God, but how many ways we can obey Him and glorify Him. Consider: right thinking glorifies God! So also do godly desires, affections, and imaginings!  Take some time today to think about the many ways you can glorify God with your all your soul, and then by His grace, strive to do it!

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