• Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Rule #4 For Rightly Understanding The Ten Commandments

Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Ephesians 4:28NKJV


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 fourth one: "For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed: 4. That as, where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded; so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included." Last week we considered how the commandments overlap and complement one another. This week we look at how each commandment contains both positive and negative precepts.

One of the things for which the Pharisees were infamous was that they would trivialize God's law to the point where the bare minimum obedience to the letter was all that was required. Jesus addressed this gross distortion of, and hatred for God's law in the Sermon on the Mount, when He said: "You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…." Six times this refrain recurs in the sermon. Each time Jesus shows that the law does not call for minimal outward conformity but constrains the whole man, body and soul.  Therefore, because perfect obedience from the heart is the goal, each prohibition requires the corresponding duty, and vice versa. Thus, the command to not murder (Matt. 5:21) requires reconciliation (v. 24); the command against swearing falsely (v. 33) requires telling the truth (vv. 34-37); and the command against vengeance (v. 38) requires doing good (vv. 39-42).  As the verse at the head of this article shows, the thief who stops stealing has not really obeyed the 8th commandment until he also begins to honestly work and earn his own living.

If we faithfully apply this principle to all of our duties before God, we will better understand God's law. Thus, the 1st commandment not only forbids other gods but it requires that the Lord be our God.  The 2nd commandment not only forbids making and worshipping idols, but it requires that we worship God rightly. The 3rd commandment not only forbids taking God's name in vain, but it requires the hallowing of God's name. And so also with each commandment: the 4th commandment forbids the breaking of the Sabbath; the 5th forbids the dishonoring of our parents; the 6th requires love to others; the 7th requires faithfulness to our spouses and sexual purity before marriage; the 8th requires honest work; the 9th requires telling the truth; and the 10th requires us to be satisfied with our own houses, wives, and possessions. Each of the commandments necessarily requires the right obedience and forbids the wrong precisely because the obedience elicited is to be sincere and total. As Jesus states at the end of this section of His sermon: "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect," (Matt. 5:48).

Additionally, the Catechism points out that where a promise is connected to a commandment the corresponding threatening is included and vice versa. This principle is explicitly stated in the second commandment but it is true for all of them. Thus, we are not to make graven images, "For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments," (Exod. 20:5b-6). The threat is judgment to the third and fourth generation for disobedience; the promise is mercy to the thousandth generation for obedience. Moreover, faithful Israelites would have understood that they were not earning anything from God by their works, but that all of His rewards were rewards of grace. Likewise, the threat of the 3rd commandment that God will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain, includes the promise that God will bless those who honor His name, and conversely the promise of long life for obedience to the 5th commandment includes the threat of premature death for disobedience.

God's commandments never go half way. They never ask for a token of attention from us. God requires that we love Him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. In everything and from our whole beings, we are to love and do the good and hate and shun the evil defined by God's perfect law.  God gives us incentives that every sin will be punished, and every act of obedience will be rewarded, even a cup of cold water given in His name (Mark 9:41).

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