• Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Rule #6 For Rightly Understanding the Ten Commandments

Abstain from every form of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:22NKJV


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 sixth one: "For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed: 6. That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded together with all the causes, means, occasions and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto." Last week we looked at the difference between imperatives and prohibitions and how obedience is to be appropriately and timely rendered. This week we consider our duty to avoid the occasion of sin.

In the gospels the Pharisees were the constant opponents of Jesus. They were always trying to accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath or trap Him in His teaching about the Law of God. That is probably one of the reasons why many commentators and ordinary Christians mistakenly think that the Pharisees' great sin was that they loved God's Law too much. This view pits God's Law and Gospel against one another, and seems to think that the Pharisees' high regard for God's Law led them to miss the Gospel. But the truth is almost exactly the opposite. The Pharisees rejected the Gospel precisely because they did NOT love God's Law. They maintained an outward reputation of being the guardians of God's Law, while they actually hated it and did all that they could to undermine it. The Scriptures provide us with multiple examples of this behavior.

First, the Pharisees' hatred for the Law can be seen in how they superficially kept the bare letter of the Law, but they did not avoid all of the causes, means, occasions, appearances of, and provocations to sin. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus noted how the Pharisees affirmed the bare letter of the 7th commandment against adultery, but He had to add teaching against lust, since the Pharisees did not: "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). In His sermon Christ makes this same point about murder (21-26), divorce (31-32), oaths (33-37), vengeance (38-39), and love (43-47). If we really love God's Law for righteousness, we will not seek to obey as little of it as possible, we will studiously avoid taking a single step towards sin.

Second, the Pharisees' hatred for the Law can be seen in how they only kept the most visible commands merely to appear righteous. In other words, they did not obey the Law out of love for righteousness and God's glory, which obedience would cause them to obey even in secret, since their only goal would be to express their love. No, the Pharisees obeyed only to the degree that such "obedience" would serve their glory in the eyes of men. Thus, Jesus rebuked them for being so scrupulous about the smallest acts of visible obedience, even as they carelessly neglected the biggest commands, which addressed the whole heart and soul, since such obedience could not be seen: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" (Matt. 23:23-24). Furthermore, Jesus taught that such an imbalance was not due to an innocent mistake of emphasis, it was deliberate: "Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness," (Matt. 23:28).

Finally, the Pharisees' hatred for God's Law could be seen in how they invalidated God's Law for the sake of their tradition. Perhaps this was their most brazen sin of all, whereby they actually commended disobedience to God in order to keep their manmade rules: "He said to them, 'All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, "Honor your father and your mother"; and, "He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death." But you say, "If a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban' -- (that is, a gift to God)," then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do,'" (Mark 7:9-13).  Notice here, "many such things you do." Jesus indicated that they had successfully invalidated many of God's Laws in favor of their own. May God grant you a growing love of His Law that you would also be in sincere love with His Gospel!

A member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)