Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Preface to the Ten Commandments
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Exodus 20:2NKJV
Question 101 of the Larger Catechism asks, "What is the preface to the ten commandments?" It gives the answer, "The preface to the ten commandments is contained in these words, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments." Last week we looked at how we are to read and apply each of the commandments to our lives. This week we consider in particular the preface to the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are a summary of God's Law for mankind. Obedience to the Ten Commandments is the definition of righteousness. Breaking the Ten Commandments is the act of sin. Adam and Eve failed to keep the Ten Commandments in the Garden of Eden when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which God had forbidden them to eat. From that moment on the human race was plunged into the total depravity of original sin. Since that historic fall of mankind into sin, the Ten Commandments, as a way of achieving justification in a covenant of works, could only condemn man as a lawbreaker. However, on Mount Sinai God did not give the Ten Commandments to Israel in a republication of the original Covenant of Works. Man, having already been condemned in that covenant could not hope to fulfill it, and so God would have been deceitful to hold it out to man as a way of possibly earning anything by it. No the preface to the Ten Commandments makes it clear that God is giving man His law, not in a covenant of works, but in an administration of the Covenant of Grace.
First, the preface declares that God is the God of His people. In Hebrew the text reads: "I am Yahweh, your elohim." Yahweh is God's covenant name by which He is seen to be the savior of His people. How did Israel know that God was their Yahweh? Because He delivered them from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Thus, God gave Israel His commandments in a context where He has already "saved" them. This salvation from Egypt was entirely by the grace of God. Israel did nothing to earn this salvation. God saved them because He freely decided to make Israel His people out of all of the nations of the earth (Deut. 10:15). In Saving Israel from Egypt God made them His people. God expended effort in mighty saving acts and thus purchased Israel from Egypt so that they now belong to Him: "And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine," (Lev. 20:26).
Accordingly, it is not possible to read the Commandments as a way for Israel to earn anything from God. The preface teaches us that God already owns the people. Therefore, He gives them His Commandments, not as a way to earn everlasting life; not as a way to earn temporal blessings; in other words not as a way to become anything or to earn or achieve anything at all. But God gives the Commandments to His people as those who already are His people! The Commandments show them the way they are to respond to Him as the God who has already given to them Himself, and thus everything eternal and temporal that they could possibly want. If they already have God as their God by grace (and therefore they have all that God has), what could they possibly hope to have or earn by their works? We know that Israel quickly perverted God's laws into a way of earning eternal and temporal rewards from Him, but that was not the way in which God gave them to them.
On this side of the cross, we stand in exactly the same relation to the Ten Commandments as the ancient Israelites did. In Christ, God has already given to us all things, yet we too are obligated to keep the Ten Commandments. As the Catechism says, we are "bound" to keep them. But that obligation is not in order to earn something from God by the imperfect obedience of our works. Rather, we are bound to keep the Commandments because God has already delivered us from the spiritual house of bondage to sin. The Ten Commandments teach us to obey God's laws because by His grace He has purchased us to Himself as His people, so that we would live like His people (Eph. 2:8-10). We have been saved in Christ Jesus to do good works to the glory of God. May God grant that we would ever more do so!