• Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Rule #3 for Rightly Understanding the Ten Commandments

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Colossians 3:5NKJV


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 third one: "For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed: 3. That one and the same thing, in divers respects, is required or forbidden in several commandments." Last week we looked at the spiritual focus of the Ten Commandments. This week we consider how the commandments overlap and complement each other.

As we noticed in previous questions, God's law speaks to the whole being of man. The divine precepts enjoin not just behavior but the heart. That is not true for man's law. Human laws cannot command the heart, for man has no jurisdiction over the soul. God has given human government authority over the physical but not the spiritual nature. We can easily see the justice of this arrangement. Since human government protects and benefits the physical well being of man so we owe it our physical allegiance. Human government cannot, however, address the spiritual needs of man, so neither can it command the heart. What this means is that while the government can command you to pay taxes, it cannot require you to like it!

Moreover, even if it tried to pass such a law it could never enforce it. Apart from the grace of God a man cannot even rightly judge his own heart, as each one of us often deceive ourselves in order to get out of some duty that we know is required of us, or to excuse ourselves from some sin that we know we have committed. Thus, human government does not own, cannot know, and is not able to command the heart. God however, does require us to obey from the heart. The God who made us owns us body and soul. He requires that we obey Him fully and sincerely with our bodies and from our hearts. Furthermore, He sees all and knows all. God is able to know the heart perfectly and so God's laws rightly require of man heartfelt obedience in all things.

What does all of this have to do with today's question about the same thing being required or forbidden in several commandments? Because God's law commands not just outward behavior but inward attitude and sincerity, there will necessarily be overlap and interplay within the commandments. Man's spiritual nature, being more directly analogous to God's being; since God has a Spirit but not a body; is exceedingly multifaceted and complex. Like God, we have a will and a mind that acts with purpose and intent. We know that our desires and affections are to reflect the love God has for the good and the hatred He has for evil. When we act with integrity many different good works proceed from the same godly desire. Likewise, when we sin many different evil actions can proceed from the same evil desire. Thus, the same good work can be found to be commanded in several different commandments, even as the same sin can be seen to be forbidden by more than one commandment.

We have an example of this phenomenon in the Scripture at the head of this article. The Greek text of this verse clearly identifies covetousness as idolatry. Therefore, when we covet, we are breaking not only the tenth commandment, but also the first. The person who covets is by definition putting something before God in his heart and so he is guilty of idolatry. Similarly, the able-bodied man who excuses himself from work to live off of the efforts of others, even though it may be by a legal government program, is guilty not only of breaking the 4th commandment against the Sabbath, but also the eighth commandment against stealing, for he is taking what he has not earned. Conversely, when a man honestly works to provide for himself and others, he keeps both of these commandments. In fact, all acts of obedience, when done purposely and sincerely to God, by definition keep the first commandment in addition to any others.

Why is this important for us to know? Because the purpose of our lives is righteousness; we are to love God by keeping His commandments, bringing Him glory and honor. As we recognize how the law more fully speaks to our behavior, we have greater incentive to turn from sin and to walk in that obedience for which we were created. God grant that we would remember this rule in order to excite our obedience to Him!

A member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

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