Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer
Sometimes people think the Ten Commandments are an exhaustive list of all the laws of God for men. Since the Ten Commandments don’t say anything about such things as tithing, or gossip, or polygamy, or drunkenness, or obedience to the State, or gambling, therefore, people say we can’t judge one another with regard to those things. We can only judge right and wrong from the Ten Commandments.
Such a shallow understanding of the Ten Commandments fails to do justice to the fact that these Ten Commandments cover virtually every single thought, word, and deed of mankind. Today we’re going to see that the Ten Commandments are not an exhaustive listing of all the laws of God. They’re merely a brief summary of that law.
Jesus gave an even shorter summary of the law in Matthew 22:36-40. “‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”
Jesus was summarizing the first half of the Ten Commandments as love to God and the second half as love to one’s neighbor. And so Paul could even say, in Romans 13:10, “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
So the shortest summary of all is simply, “love.” But then we have a problem. Because the summary of the law is “love,” some argue that we no longer need the Bible or even the Ten Commandments, in order to know what we’re supposed to say, think, and do. Just love. As the song puts it, “All you need is love…Love is all you need.”
And then these people practice everything from adultery to child pornography in the name of love!
Others argue that the only law we have is the Ten Commandments. “As long as we obey the Ten Commandments, we’re OK.”
But Jesus said, in Matthew 22:40, “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands.”
In other words, the summary, as we find it in the Ten Commandments, doesn’t do away with the specifics. The specifics are spelled out in the whole Bible, both the Law (referring to the five books of Moses), and the Prophets (referring to the rest of the OT). The Ten Commandments don’t do away with the specifics revealed all throughout the OT. They merely sum them up. Jesus was saying, then, that the Ten Commandments and the law of love are a summary of all the specific laws of Scripture.
So we see that the Ten Commandments summarize the principles behind every law in the Bible. “Just the Ten Commandments,” or “Just love,” were never intended to be our only guide as to how we should live and how we should obey God. These are only brief summaries of our total duty to God. The whole Bible is our infallible guide to tell us what man is to believe concerning God and to tell us what duty God requires of man.
That’s why the WLC says,
Q. 91. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.
Q. 98. Where is the moral law summarily comprehended? [Where is it summarized?]
A. The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments, which were delivered by the voice of God upon mount Sinai, and written by him in two tables of stone; and are recorded in the twentieth chapter of Exodus. The four first commandments containing our duty to God, and the other six our duty to man.
Because the Ten Commandments are simply a summary, rather than a full blown list of every law, our WLC lists 8 Biblical rules that must be observed to rightly understand the Ten Commandments. The Bible itself follows these rules in applying God’s law in day-to-day situations. These rules show how the Ten Commandments cover every thought, every word, and every deed of our lives. These rules show how deep and how comprehensive these Ten Commandments are.
Whenever anyone came to Jesus in the NT and said, “I keep the Ten Commandments,” Jesus would always show him that he held too narrow a view of the Ten Commandments. Nobody keeps them perfectly, in their fullest sense, except Jesus, Himself.
But God commands perfection in the keeping of His law, and therefore we should aim for perfection if we truly love Him.
WLC #99 gives us 8 Biblical rules for understanding the Ten Commandments. These rules help us to see how broadly these Commandments need to be applied.
Q. 99. What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments?
A. For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed:
And then it proceeds to list each of the 8 rules.
The first principle is that the law requires perfection.
Rule #1. That the law is perfect, and bindeth every one to full conformity in the whole man unto the righteousness thereof, and unto entire obedience for ever; so as to require the utmost perfection of every duty, and to forbid the least degree of every sin.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concludes His interpretation of the OT Law with these words in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In Matthew 5:18, Jesus had said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus never taught salvation by works. He’s not saying that our righteousness will earn heaven for us. But He is saying that unless we have the perfect righteousness that’s given to us by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we won’t be saved.
Jesus is also saying that every true Christian will demonstrate true, inner righteousness, to a degree that surpasses the outward, legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
Jesus implied that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not saved, in spite of their supposed, meticulous, outward observance of the law. They added a whole bunch of outward regulations, thinking that in keeping all these outward things they were obeying God. But God’s law is something that reaches even to the heart. If you follow God’s law with your lips, but your heart is far from Him, you’re still in your sins. You’re lost. But if you have a heart of faith in Christ, then you’ll bear good fruit in thankful obedience. Because the law is perfect and demands perfection in every part of our being, we’re all lost unless we’re in Christ by faith and by covenant. Christ is the only man who perfectly kept the law. By faith in Him, His righteousness is ours. And if we have true faith, then our heart’s desire and our aim will be perfect obedience to God’s revealed moral law as well.
The second principle is that the law applies to the whole man.
Rule #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.
In other words, as we’ve already pointed out, the law must be obeyed inwardly, in the heart, and not just outwardly in our actions.
Jesus was clear, in the Sermon on the Mount, that just because your outward body doesn’t commit adultery, that doesn’t mean your heart or your thoughts are obedient. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus says, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Not only is stealing wrong, but so are envy and coveting. Not only is murder wrong, but so are wrongful hatred and sinful anger. Man’s laws bind only the outward body. God’s law binds the inner heart as well.
The third principle is that the law applies the single principle of righteousness (love) to the specifics of life.
Rule #3. That one and the same thing, in divers respects, is required or forbidden in several commandments.
In other words, every single Commandment requires the same thing: that we love. That means that when you break one Commandment, you’ve broken them all, because they all relate to the principle of righteousness, which is love.
James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Every law relates to every other law, and they all relate to love.
Colossians 3:5 says, “greed... is idolatry.” Greed shows that you love money more than you love God. And that’s idolatry! Greed very often causes a person to steal. It also causes Sabbath breaking. Or we may break the 9th Commandment and lie in order to get money. Spiritual idolatry is equated, in the Bible, with adultery, because we’ve left our first love and have gone after a harlot love – money, for instance. So the Ten Commandments are all tied together and all related together in such a way that to break one of them is to break all of them. So no one can ever say, “Well, at least I keep most of the Commandments.”
The fourth principle is that the law implies its opposite.
Rule #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.
That means that when we’re commanded to work six days, and to rest on the seventh day, that means we’re also forbidden to live idle lives and be lazy on those six days.
II Thessalonians 3:10, therefore, teaches, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
When we’re forbidden to take God’s Name in vain, in the 3rd Commandment, that implies the opposite, that we’re commanded, positively, to reverence His Name instead.
Deuteronomy 28:58-59 says, “If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name – the LORD your God – the LORD will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses...”
So to simply refrain from outwardly speaking God’s Name in vain is not a full obedience to the 3rd Commandment. Where does the 3rd Commandments say we must revere God’s Name? It’s implied as the opposite of taking God’s Name in vain!
The same is true of punishments and blessings. The 5th Commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” That’s a promised blessing for those who keep this Commandment.
But Proverbs 30:17 shows us that the opposite is true as well, “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures.”
That shows that there’s a promised curse as well as a promised blessing implied in the 5th Commandment.
The fifth principle is that the law is always our duty.
Rule #5. That what God forbids, is at no time to be done; what he commands, is always our duty; and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.
So even though we have to set priorities and do certain duties at certain times and other duties at other times, we’re always responsible to obey the law of God in all that we do – no exceptions. Just because we might suffer a greater temptation on one day than on another day, that’s no excuse for letting our obedience to the law slide that day.
Ephesians 4:29 is an application of the law of love, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
That’s always our duty, no matter what kind of a day we might be having. Sometimes we say, “Sorry I blew up at you, but I’ve just been having a bad day.”
That may be a reason, but that’s no excuse! You sinned and broke the law, and you need forgiveness!
The sixth principle is that the law forbids all similar sins and all occasions to sin.
Rule #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.
That means, for example, that the command, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” forbids all similar sins, such as homosexuality, pornography, fornication, incest, and so forth. It even forbids putting yourself into a tempting situation where the occasion might lead you to sin.
Proverbs 5:8, says, regarding the prostitute, “do not go near the door of her house.”
Now you might think, “What’s sinful about going near the door of a prostitute’s house?”
And then, obviously, the next question would be, “What’s sinful about just stepping inside the door of a prostitute’s house, for just a minute or two, to talk...?”
You see where this is going… We must avoid not only sin, but also every occasion which might tempt us to sin. In other words, don’t play with fire!
In like manner, the command, “Thou shalt not murder,” forbids not only murder, but all similar sins, like abortion, euthanasia, sentencing an innocent man to death, reckless endangerment, negligence which might lead to someone’s death, even all unnecessary physical violence.
The seventh principle is that each Commandment commands us to be an accessory to righteousness for others as well as watching out for our own righteousness.
Rule #7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavour that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.
So if we’re commanded to do something, or forbidden to do something, then we must do our best to see to it that those under our charge obey these things as well. That doesn’t mean we need to set ourselves up as policemen or to become “busybodies,” poking our noses into other people’s business. We need to remember our place and our position of authority. If we’re parents, or officers of the church, or if we’re civil authorities, we have a greater obligation to see to it that those under our charge follow the law of God. The session of a congregation has a duty, not only to obey the law themselves, but to encourage those under their charge to obey it and to discipline those who break it. Parents have the same duty with regard to their children. Civil authorities have the same duty with regard to those under their charge. This is simply a further application of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
But even with those who are not under your authority, you have a duty to encourage others, in as respectful and tactful a way as possible, to do what’s right, and to discourage others from doing wrong, just as you try to do this yourself.
And the eighth principle is the flip side of this, that the law commands us to help others obey the laws that they’re required to obey, rather than to be accessories in crime with them.
Rule #8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.
The Bible tells us that we should be careful not to put a stumbling block in the path of our neighbor.
We should use the power of “peer pressure” to help others obey their responsibilities, and to help others stay away from sinful practices.
For example, even though it may not be a sin for Henry to go to see a movie, he shouldn’t encourage Jimmy to go, when he knows Jimmy’s parents have forbidden him.
And even if Jimmy tries to convince Henry to go with him, Henry should refuse to go with Jimmy and thus join in his sin.
All of these rules for understanding the Ten Commandments teach us how broadly these principles of the law apply to us. They reach to every thought, word, and deed of our lives. And they even reach to our relationships with others.
No one who understands what God’s law requires of us in this way will ever be tempted to think that he keeps perfectly even one Commandment of that law. It’s out of a careful study of the law of God that we come to know our great sinfulness. If we truly understand what God requires in His Law, we’ll also truly understand our great need for a Savior, Jesus Christ. We’ll be led to repent of our sin, and we’ll turn, in faith, to Jesus Christ, putting our trust in His perfect righteousness alone for our salvation!
So as we study the Ten Commandments in the coming weeks, we’ll be discussing some things that the Ten Commandments don’t even talk about, specifically. But that’s because these Ten, brief Commandments are simply brief summaries of the whole law of God which is to be obeyed perfectly, all the time, with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength! And we do that by trusting in Jesus Christ and His perfect righteousness transferred to our account by grace through faith!