/ Nathan Eshelman

Seven Phrases on the Ten Words

What’s THAT Have to Do With the Ten Commandments?

Have you ever had a conversation with a Christian about an ethical question where they said something to the effect of, “That’s a violation of the insert number one through ten  commandment.” And you responded with a “huh?!”

For the sake of example, here are some ethics-statements that Christians have said regarding ethics and their relationship to the Ten Commandments. You may have heard similar statements or have questions of your own :

  • Labor unions are violations of the Fifth Commandment (honor father and mother).
  • Angry outbursts are violations of the Sixth Commandment (against murder).
  • Going out for dinner on Sunday is a violation of the Fourth Commandment (Sabbath).
  • Playing state lotteries is a violation of the Eighth Commandment (against stealing).
  • Dressing immodestly is a violation of the Seventh Commandment (against adultery).
  • Singing uninspired worship songs violates the Second Commandment (no idols).
  • Birth control is a violation of the Sixth Commandment (against murder).

Again, the purpose of this article is not to attempt to answer the above questions or any ethics question that you may have. The purpose of this article is give you some principles to help you apply the Ten Commandments to some of the ethical situations that you face from day to day in the Christian life.

So how can you better understand the Ten Commandments? Below are seven principles to help  as you think about living a careful life in gratitude for the grace of Jesus Christ. 

1. The Totally Perfect Principle

The Bible teaches us that the law of the Lord is perfect. We need to come to the Ten  Commandments with this understanding. There are no errors or falsehood or unbinding principles presented in the Ten Commandments. This is the perfect moral law of God and is a perfect representation of God’s character and what he demands from his creation.

The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes (Psalm 19:7-8).

2. Heart and Soul Principle

When we look at the Ten Commandments, we must realize that outward conformity is not the end goal—it is actually just a beginning of what is required. In one sense it is really easy to obey the Ten Commandments. Have you ever murdered anyone? I believe I am safe to assume that most of the_ Gentle Reformation_ readers don’t have big idols in their homes.  Anyone here commit adultery lately? Outwardly, we can do this. We can strive and convince ourselves that we have done a good job.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), gives us a principle of interpretation that says, “Oh by the way when I say ‘don’t kill,’ I mean in your heart too. I want you to not kill in understanding, will, affection, and all other aspects of the soul—I  don’t want you to kill in word, work, or gesture. This is not a matter of just outward conformity, but one of the heart as well. Mere outward obedience is NOT obedience.

3. Already Said That Principle

There are ways that the Ten Commandments overlap one another and ways that one could violate or keep more than one commandment at at the same time. Colossians 3:5 tells us that covetousness is idolatry. That means that it is a violation of both the 10th and the 2nd commandment. There are sins in the life of humanity that overlap and are intertwined with other commands. This teaches us something of the complexity of humanity as well as the way in which “one little sin” may prove to be destructive in many areas of our lives.

4. The Pros and  Cons Principle

When a commandment is given in a positive form there are also negatives associated with the commandment. Conversely, when  a commandment is given in a negative form, there are positives required. Example: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. This is a command written positively, yet we know there are negatives associated with the command.

We could look at Isaiah 58:13 to further illustrate. Here is a text that is encouraging the people of God to keep the Sabbath Day. As the prophet puts forth his understanding of the fourth commandment, he tells us that there are things we do and things we don’t do. This does not mean he is adding to the law of God. He is actually showing us the fullness of the biblical interpretation of the law. Both pros and cons are a part of the fulness of how the law is to be understood.

5. Context is King Principle

The Westminster Larger Catechism has this great line: “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.”

This rule of interpretation tells us two things. The first is that if God has commanded something we are to do it. But it also tells us that not all of the Ten Commandments are to be kept at all times. There are times when we are given the opportunity to keep certain laws and there are times when we are given opportunity to keep other laws.

No matter the context, we are commanded to keep God’s law at all times but not necessarily every law at the same time. This is a common sense principle. Example: In a just war soldiers are allowed to kill; that does not constitute murder, it constitutes national self-defense.

Ethical behavior is always achieved within a context. We must ask ourselves what that context is when discussing obedience to the law. God calls us to keep all of the commands, but there are times when what may appear to be breaking a law is actually keeping the law. This principle is why so many political liberals find their heads spinning when trying to figure out how “pro-life” Christians can also be “pro death penalty.” They see it as inconsistent; the Bible sees it in context.

**6. Brother’s Keeper Principle **

When God commands something of his people, we are all responsible for supporting and encouraging each other in the keeping of that law. As Westerners we struggle with this principle because of our rampant individualism. But unlike Cain’s presupposition, we are each other’s keeper. We are called to be helpers to one another in our obedience to Jesus Christ.

7. What’s Love Got to Do, Got to Do With It? Principle

The Ten Commandments are given to God’s people so that we will have a tangible way of understanding what love looks like and a tangible was of expressing love. When Jesus summarized the law as “love for God and love for neighbor,” we see commandments 1-4 as expressions of love towards God and commandments 5-10 as expressions of love towards each other. When we desire to keep the commandments and when we speak in terms of “law” and “command,” we are speaking in terms of love. Jesus taught us that.

As you think about how to live a life of gratitude for the grace that Jesus Christ has given, consider his call, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” As reformed Christians, our historic catechisms use these very principles as they explain how the law is applied to the life of the believer. Go back to your favorite reformed catechism with these principles in mind. You will see that these principles are being used as the Ten Commandments are being expounded.

Of course, these principles go beyond catechisms that are centuries old! We too should consider these principles as we think about the ethical situations that God's providence places before us.  We should consider these seven phrases as we ask the question, “What’s THAT have to do with the Ten Commandments?”

Nathan Eshelman

Nathan Eshelman

Pastor in Orlando, studied at Puritan Reformed Theological & Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminaries. One of the chambermen on the podcast The Jerusalem Chamber. Married to Lydia with 5 children.

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