The 10 Commandments: What Are They & Are They Still Relevant?
- Dr. Michael A. Milton Author
- 2019 31 May
Perhaps you have heard someone say that we live in the age of grace and the age of the law is now over. Is that right? How does one reconcile this with the continuing commandments in the New Testament that speak to virtue, morality, and reflecting God’s goodness out of gratitude? Such a conundrum would often cause my uncle to exclaim, “We need a Philadelphia lawyer to figure this out!” Well, with all due respect to Uncle John, we really don’t. We just need to apply some slow, careful study to God’s revealed Word. So, let’s go.
The Ten Commandments are given by God to Israel through Moses. The account of the Ten Commandments is found in both the Exodus passage that we will employ, as well as Deuteronomy 5:6-21.
1. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. 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.
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
6. “You shall not murder.
7. “You shall not commit adultery.
8. “You shall not steal.
9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.”
It is no wonder that confusion can arise over the matter of “the law.” Even biblical scholars must admit that untangling the continuing place of “law” in the Christian life is difficult:
"The New Testament’s statements about Old Testament law are difficult to harmonize,” said Joe M. Sprinkle in the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
On the one hand, some New Testament statements indicate that under the new covenant the whole law is in some sense abrogated (Rom. 6:14, “You are not under law”; Rom. 10:4, “Christ is the end of the law”).
On the other hand, the law cannot be altogether invalid since the New Testament affirms its abiding applicability. "All Scripture is … useful" (2 Tim. 3:16–17), including Old Testament laws. Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17–20). The law is the embodiment of truth that instructs (Rom. 2:18–19). It is "holy" and "spiritual," making sin known to us by defining it; therefore, Paul delights in it (Rom. 7:7-14, 22).
So, how are we to possibly untangle the legal ball of yarn? Is it even possible to do so? Or, is this one of those several categories of biblical puzzles, which will not be solved until Jesus comes again (others being God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility; predestination and free agency, etc.)? Actually, no. God has settled the matter quite clearly. However, such clarity will require us to pause and take notice. The answer to the question of law and gospel is, indeed, revealed in God’s Word. The answer is available for any of us to locate, but it does require a necessary study of the types of law that are revealed in the Bible. Or, as St. Paul put it:
“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not!” (
Gal. 3:21, ESV)
I hear a kind reader’s mild frustration: “But wait – didn’t we just read that this same biblical author, the Apostle Paul, said ‘by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight?’ ” (Romans 3:20)? Yes. “And, now, you tell me that Paul says the Gospel and the law are not incompatible?” Yes. “So, the law is fulfilled?” Yes. “And the law continues?” Yes. “You have got to be kidding! What is in the world is going on with the law in the Bible?” Great question!
3 Types of Biblical Law
The Lord Jesus, as well as the Apostle Paul, did affirm that the law was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the New Testament is a witness to affirming the continuation of the law. For St. Paul wrote, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (
A careful examination of the use of the word “law” demonstrates the answer. Certain laws that dealt with Old Testament ceremonial life (“Ceremonial Laws”) were fulfilled in Christ. Other laws, relating to the time of Moses, when Israel had no king but God, have been called, “Civil Laws” (or, sometimes, “Theocratic Laws;” because Israel was a theocracy, with God as head of the human government). The other category of “law” in the Bible is that critical code of living that is before us in this article: the Ten Commandments. Those commandments form a “Moral Law” that continues to this day.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), one of the most concise, authoritative doctrinal statements in Church history (Reformed, Protestant), summarizes the matter in its Chapter 19:
God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him, and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep.
II. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty towards God, and the other six our duty to man.
III. Besides this law, commonly called Moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances; partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament.
IV. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, farther than the general equity thereof may require.
V. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
Our study is focused on the “moral law” of God, i.e., the Ten Commandments.
Ancient Near Eastern Laws
The ancient Near East was a culture based upon image. In this regard, the region was no different from any other parts of the world in that era. The powers of nature (i.e., Creation), worship, communication, and, indeed, every other aspect of human endeavor was represented by iconography — carved wood or stone, clay, or other materials used to make representation. The Decalogue—the Ten Commandments, or literally in Hebrew “the Ten Words”—was an unprecedented and extraordinary break from the culture of created image. The late Dr. Neil Postman wrote “the God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word . . . An unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.
The Ten Commandments required the conception of God by “the highest order of abstract thinking” and in doing so began to train the mind to think thoughts after God. This approach to God, revealed by the Lord to humankind, allowed for an intellectual curiosity that would eventually send machines into interstellar travel, beaming photographs of deep space back to earth on radio waves.
Image does not require the same level of cognitive effort. Rather, another dynamic happens. The image becomes about us. Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and George Orwell in 1984 both saw the power of image reducing and finally distorting the ability to think logically. Postman summarized the situation well: “In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
In this sense, the Jewish race chosen by God to carry the plan for the redemption of humankind was not merely unique. The Jewish race and religion was reflective: reflective of the mind of God, and, therefore, a seminal step in recovering the image of God that had been lost in the Fall from Eden. Norman Shepherd writes “the narrative of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 affirms the distinctiveness of both man’s nature and task. Man was created in the image of God for the purpose of communion and fellowship with God. As God’s vicegerent, he was given dominion on the earth to cultivate and use its resources for the glory of God. Man was created righteous with a disposition and with every encouragement to do good.”
The Decalogue was a major step in God’s mission in the world in restoring that image to do good. The Ten Commandments literally changed the world. If you fear I exaggerate, consider these six phenomenal ways that demonstrate how the Decalogue transformed the world.
Photo credit: Thinkstock/Arrangements Photography
1. The Ten Commandments Transformed the World by Revelation
The Ten Commandments came to Israel by direct revelation from Almighty God. Because of the fear of Israel, Moses became the intermediary who received the stone tablets on which were recorded the Commandments. Until this point, ancient Near Eastern pagan religions were disseminated to people for practice by the cult of priesthood. Only the priests had access to the deities. The Ten Commandments is a significant part of the narrative that God has revealed to humanity about Himself, about ourselves, and the awful loss of relationship lost by sin. In short, to quote the late great Dr. Francis Schaeffer, “There is a God and he has spoken." This revelation from God to man was something altogether different than the superstitious, nature-power-focused cults of the Near Eastern world. Quite simply, mankind could think thoughts after God because God had revealed His mind to humankind. And everything changed.
2. The Ten Commandments Transformed the World through Education
When God gave the Ten Commandments, He instructed Israel to teach these things to the children. Deuteronomy 6 remains the preeminent pedagogical guide for human beings.
“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.’ ” (Deut. 6:20-21)
God taught that the Ten Commandments should be modeled before the children in such a way as it causes them to ask, "what does this mean for me?" Then, the father — the parents — are able to say how the meta-narrative of Israel and mankind is also the personal narrative of the child's family.
3. The Ten Commandments Transformed the World through Literature and the Arts
One might suppose that with the prohibition of creating images to represent God that the arts were somehow suppressed. However, the second commandment specifically addresses the lower, base approach of thinking about God only by representation. To speak of this in another way, it unleashed the mind to begin to think about God as He revealed Himself and to use words to articulate the relationship between God and mankind. This veritable emancipation of the mind flowered into expressions of beauty about God's world, about human beings and their relationship to God as well as their relationship to the earth. Literature and the visual arts are debtors to the Ten Commandments. The magnificent works of art by Michelangelo or even Vincent van Gogh, as well as the literary fecundity of William Shakespeare and John Milton, John Steinbeck, and C.S. Lewis, are built upon the ingenious rerouting of human expression by thinking thoughts after God.
4. The Ten Commandments Transformed the World with Law
Today, we often hear the phrase "the rule of law. That phrase harkens back to the distinguishing feature of English law. English law is based upon the Magna Carta, which allowed for representation in government and denied the divine right of the king to rule without the consent of the people. The Magna Carta is merely the interpretation of the Bible and the Ten Commandments applied to the localized situation in feudal England at the time.
Fast forward to the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. The great republics of the English-speaking world flourished because of the Magna Carta and because of the Ten Commandments. There is no doubt that the benevolence of the British Empire was related to the rule of law that is founded upon the Ten Commandments. Equally so, the preeminence of the United States of America and other English-speaking nations in cultural leadership of the world is derived, also, from Judeo-Christian teaching about human government. All of this is related to the Bible and all of this is related to that most significant feature in the Bible: the Ten Commandments.
If there is any doubt about the place of the Ten Commandments in our legal system, we have only to refer to the court cases, including the United States Supreme Court, that stipulate unambiguously that our laws are built upon the Decalogue given from God to Moses in Israel. "The Ten Commandments have had an immeasurable effect on Anglo-American legal development," said the U.S. District Court in Crockett v. Sorenson, 1983. Further in Stone v. Graham in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court said "It is equally undeniable ...that the Ten Commandments have had a significant impact on the development of secular legal codes of the Western World."
5. The Ten Commandments Transformed the World by Human Government
We have talked about the Ten Commandments and the rule of law, but we might also apply the rule of law to the larger framework of human government. Each of the commandments carries within it principles that when studied and applied, create human government that is taught in Scripture. In this day and age where there is talk of so-called benefits of socialism, we would do well to return to the biblical principles for human government that are clearly revealed in the word of God. Our founders certainly did.
6. The Ten Commandments Transformed the World by Grace
Finally, it is important for us to note that the Ten Commandments did not set up a legalistic system where one is infused with righteousness and justification based upon keeping the law. Any thought to the contrary is a severe and regrettable misunderstanding of biblical law. God clearly says that salvation by His grace preceded the giving of the law. God demonstrated also that in teaching them all to our children we must remember that it is set within the larger meta-narrative of salvation. This is what I mean:
The preamble to the Ten Commandments is vital to our understanding. In the preamble God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 5:6 ESV). It is only after establishing that God is the author of their salvation, that obedience to the Commandments is revealed. Salvation precedes law. We may put it another way and say that there is no incompatibility between law and law of, between grace and obedience.
This is vital because it introduces the gospel of Jesus Christ embedded even within the Ten Commandments. We are saved by grace and by God's mercy alone through Jesus Christ who could keep all of the commandments perfectly as well as take the penalty for disobedience. Therefore we see that the Ten Commandments become for us the continuing and perpetual code of living for all human beings and is built upon God's grace.
Jesus Christ said that He did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. And this He did. He did so by living the life we could never live and dying the death that should have been ours. But the gospel of Jesus Christ sets forth the same conditions that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai: You are saved by God's grace. Live, therefore, out of gratitude in God's way. Teach these truths to your children and to all the nations of the world.
The Ten Commandments, including the all-important preamble, remains the vital pattern for living life on God's terms. And by doing so we may enjoy the fruitful blessings of God's grace and obedience to God's law that brings joy and abundant life. This is the summary teaching of law and love, obedience and liberty: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” (
And freedom from the slavery of sin born out of gratitude to God for Jesus our Lord remains the continuing power in the Christian life; a power flowing from Moral Law—the Ten Commandments.
N. Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business(Penguin Books, 2006), 10. https://books.google.com/books?id=zGkhbPEjkRoC.
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them” (Psalm 139)!
See, e.g., Thomas E. Boomershine, “Biblical Storytelling in Education,” Journal of Christian Education, no. 3 (1993): 7–18.
See the journal article by the late Justice Antonin Scalia: Antonin Scalia, “The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules,” University of Chicago Law Review56 (1989): 1175, https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/uclr56&id=1185&div=&collection=. See, also, Andrew Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900(Hachette UK, 2010).
Sadly, Postmodernity has deconstructed the religious underpinning of the cultural gains. It must be admitted, however distressingly, that the present cultural exports of the English-speaking world is laced with arsenic-like ideas that are alien to the Word.
Lead photo credit: Getty Images
PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.