THE NATURE OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
Davis W. Huckabee
Our first study concerned itself with the origin of the Ten Commandments, which we found to be of Divine origin, having come from the Lord Himself, and was given through the agency of angels to Moses, who in turn gave them to the Nation of Israel. However, we also considered that this giving of the Ten Commandments to Israel was not the origin of them, but that there is much evidence of the essence of these having been given to man from the very beginning. Man’s accountability for his sins rests upon the supposition of the existence of Law, for "Sin is the transgression of the law," I John 3:4f, and, "Sin is not imputed when there is no law," Rom. 5:13f. If man is, and always has been, accountable for his sins, then it is evident that there has been Law from man’s beginning, for who doubts of man’s accountability for his sins, except the man that is trying to get rid of his accountability because of his love of sin. This fact will also evidences the truth that the Law of God was for all of Adam’s fallen race, and not just for the nation of Israel.
Our present study will be occupied with a consideration of the nature of the Decalog, for the nature of a thing has much to do with the authority that it carries, and with human responsibility to it. We must understand the nature of the Decalog before we can possibly hope to have the right outlook on it, and the right attitude toward it. For instance, if we view the Decalog merely as an ancient code of laws that was once given to Israel, then we shall not see its application and authority to us today, nor will we concern ourselves at all with obedience to it.
We must recognize that the Law is an expression of the nature of God, for not only does the law have its source in God, but also its nature is expressive of God’s nature. Thus, E. H. Johnson observes—
2. But in what sense is God the source of law? May it be traced to his will, to his benevolence, or to his nature? Undoubtedly to his nature. His will is the immediate source of law, and benevolence certainly guided his will; but both will and benevolence belong to his nature, must be exercised in harmony with his entire nature, and therefore the primary and determinative source of law is the perfect nature of God.
All laws then which God has instituted are ‘transcripts of the divine nature’—moral law, of its moral aspects; mental laws, of its intellectual aspect; physical laws, of the wisdom of God in creating physical objects fitted to his designs."—Outline of Systematic Theology, pp. 133-134.
THE DECALOG IS A MORAL LAW
There are two kinds of laws or precepts, and every law will fall into one or the other of these categories. These are moral precepts and positive precepts. The difference in these is explained by B. H. Carroll.
It is this moral characteristic of the Decalog that is wrought in the most basic nature of man, so that no one is excusable for violating these things, though he may be the most degraded heathen. Paul was inspired to write to the Gentiles: "Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another," Rom. 2:15. This moral law is not just a thing made, but is a reflection of the nature of God, and the recognition of it by man is a carryover of that image of God in man, fallen and depraved though man now is.
It is this moral characteristic of the Decalog that not only makes the heathen without excuse, but also reveals that the Christian is not freed from the law in the sense that many people think and teach. Some people, putting an erroneous interpretation on the statement of Rom. 6:14f: "ye are not under law, but under grace," have declared that the law henceforth has no application to the Christian whatsoever. But this is to be Antinomian—against the Law—which when carried out to its logical end, results in Christian anarchy, the most blameworthy thing that can happen to one that professes to be a follower of Christ. To refute Antinomianism one has only to ask, "is it ever right to worship other gods, to commit adultery, to covet," etc., and one must be compelled to see that the Decalog still has authority over all men. Christians are not under the law as a way of salvation, which no one ever was, but we certainly are under the law as a way of conduct. And when people stand before God in the Day of Judgment, it will be the standard of judgment.
As moral law, the Decalog is not only seen to be logically binding upon all men, but it is, in fact, felt by them to be binding upon them. And only by a man tampering with his own mental facilities will be able to convince himself that the Decalog has no authority over him. It is in the very nature of both the Decalog and man to recognize this fact. This brings us to consider therefore—
THE DECALOG IS AN ETERNAL LAW
Was there ever a time in man’s history when he could do as he pleased, without regard to any regulations upon his conduct? Will there ever be a time when man enters such a state of affairs? We are compelled to recognize that both of these questions must be answered negatively, and so we are brought face to face with the certainty of the eternal existence of the Decalog. The first time the word command appears in Scripture, it is the expression of a prohibition, restricting man’s conduct, Gen. 2:16. This law tested man.
Man is so constituted that he must have Law to regulate his conduct. Until he is fitted with his new, glorified body, man will not be constituted so as not to need Law. Throughout man’s present existence, he must have Divine Law to direct and to regulate him. This is easily seen when we consider that the two "great commandments," to which the Ten are reduceable, namely, to love God supremely and one’s neighbor as oneself, are eternally required of man, nor will there ever be a time when they are not in force.
As we observed in our first study, there are evidences of the existence of the Law of God from man’s earliest history. It is specifically mentioned in Job 22:22, and Job is thought to have been contemporary with either Abraham or Isaac, so that it was given to man very early. And Micah 4:2 speaks of conditions upon the earth during the millennial reign of Christ, and it is there stated that at that time "the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." This clearly points up the existence of the Law in the latter end of the world’s history.
It is the mistaken idea of many that Christ’s purpose was to destroy the Law, and that He did this by nailing it to His cross when He was crucified, but this is based upon an erroneous assumption. Jesus declared "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled," Matt. 5:17-18. That He was speaking of the Decalog at least in part, is clear from the verses following. Equally emphatic is Luke 16:17: "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail." If this Law ever passes away, it will be after the heavens and the earth have first passed away, and therefore proves that the Decalog us yet in force.
The idea that the Decalog is no longer binding is based upon an erroneous interpretation of Eph. 2:15 and Col. 2:14. These verses read: "Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace." "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross." In both these passages it is erroneously assumed that the Decalog is referred to, yet both pointedly declare that this was the law "contained in ordinances," the "handwriting of ordinances." That is, the sacrificial ordinances of the Mosaic law that were done away, and the reason why they were done away was that they were typical of Christ, and so were fulfilled in His death, and thenceforth had no more purpose. And these, unlike the Moral Law, had no relevance to any nation but Israel.
Several years after the death of Christ, Paul referred to the Decalog as still in force and fulfilling its purpose of revealing sin in all its awfulness. He speaks of it as a still existent, active authority when he says: "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment which was ordained to life I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good," Rom. 7:7-12.
Throughout this passage Paul speaks of the Law in the present tense as he does also in Gal. 3 where he speaks of the present purpose of it to bring men to Christ for salvation. Yet how could this be if the Decalog has passed off the scene. It is pointedly said of the Decalog—
But this matter is made clear beyond any question by the statement of Ps. 111:7-8: "…all his commandments are sure. They stand fast for ever and ever…" There is no room left here for any doubt or debate as to the whole or any part of it.
Without tarrying longer upon this thought, we must pass on to note that not only is the Decalog an eternal Law, but also that—
THE DECALOG IS AN UNIVERSAL LAW
By this we mean to say that not only is it in force throughout all time, but that it is also in force in all parts of the world and upon all nations of people. This is easily deducible from the two foregoing thoughts, for if the Decalog is both moral and eternal Law, it naturally follows that it is also an universal Law that is in force upon all mankind. It would be an absurdity to argue that although the Decalog is binding upon most people, yet that there was once an obscure tribe upon whom it was not binding, and to whom it was right to abuse the Sabbath Day, or to lie, etc. Nor can anyone with any show of reason argue that some day there might be a group of persons that are permitted to transgress these laws without guilt. If it is unreasonable to hold to such views, then it is evident that the Decalog is universal in its authority and application. Indeed, even God’s providential relationship to the world has always been characterized by natural Law, so why would it be doubted that His relationship to the moral world would be characterized throughout by Law?
Also to the point is Paul’s statement in Gal. 3:10-11. "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith." Here as the "no man" of V11 would apply equally to the Gentile as to the Jew being excluded from justification by the deeds of the Law, so also the "every one" of V10 would include the Gentile under the curse of the broken Law. It is true that the Jew had a greater tendency to seek justification by the deeds of the Law than the Gentile. Yet the fact that this was written to the Galatians, who were, for the most part, Gentiles, shows that the Law was universal in cursing all that broke it. This is further evident from the fact that "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree," V13. The redemption that Christ purchased was a redemption and deliverance from the broken Law, yet, would any person be redeemed if he had not been under the curse of the broken Law? And could he have been under the curse except he had actually broken the Law? And could he have broken the Law if it had no application to him? Any man’s salvation is predicated upon the fact that he was a sinner in need of salvation, but this cannot be so except as he has broken the Law, for "sin is the transgression of the Law," I John 3:4f, and so is under its curse. But this cannot be except upon the supposition that the Law of God is universal in its application to the entire race of men.
Man is not excused from his sins because he does not have the written Law before his eyes, for mankind universally has this same law in essence inscribed on the heart. And a violation of the one is a violation also of the other, affecting only the degree of guilt. The difference, as W. G. T. Shedd says, is of degree, but not of kind.
Many people seem to consider the breach of the Decalog of no great consequence, so long as one does not break more than one or two of the Laws. Therefore it is needful that we consider that—
THE DECALOG IS A SOLIDARITY
We give the following definition of our meaning of the word "solidarity."
The important principle that is involved in the solidarity of the Decalog is what we need to consider. For what is involved when a person breaks one of these commandments is not simply an isolated breach of the Law, for the transgression of any one of these shows contempt of them all, and, consequently, contempt of the Lord that gave them. When any person transgresses one of these Commandments, it may be assumed that the reason for this is that his will clashed with the prohibition contained in the Commandment. And that the individual chose nonetheless to cater to his wishes instead of to conform to the Divine will. This being so, then it is not simply a matter of breaking some law, but rather of holding in utter contempt the sovereignty and the revealed will of God. Who then can justify such an act? It is outright rebellion!
This is the inspired comment upon the passage cited above, for we are told, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law," James 2:10-11. Thus, the guilt is shown to be primarily due to the fact that the transgression is an evidence of contempt of the authority of the Lawgiver. It is true that the Law, being a moral Law, when it is transgressed, is a transgression of moral standards; this we do not deny. Neither do we deny that such a transgression is also a sin against the person that is the victim of this sin. But what must be emphasized is the fact that all sin is primarily against God because it manifests contempt of His authority.
This fact is borne out in David’s confession concerning his great sin of adultery and murder. He had sinned against Bathsheba in seducing her in her husband’s absence. He had sinned against Uriah in doing this, and then sending him into battle to die to cover up the deed. He had sinned against his legitimate wives by being unfaithful to them. He had sinned against his children in setting such a bad example for them. He had sinned against the whole nation by corrupting himself as their king. He had sinned against his own body, I Cor. 6:18. Yet, in his great confession he says, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest," Ps. 51:4. Though six of these sins touched other individuals and constituted sin against them, it was first and foremost a transgression against God, being a slighting of His sovereign authority.
This then is why the Decalog is a solidarity—a unity—for it all rests equally upon the authority of God. He has a right to command what He will, when He will, and man has no right to even question the rightness of any command that God gives, much less to disregard and transgress whatsoever law happens to restrain his favorite sins.
This statement of James must not be misunderstood, nor perverted as it has been by some, who justify themselves in casting off all restraint. Such say, "Well, if my breaking of one of the commandments makes me guilty of all, I might as well go ahead and commit the others, for I am already guilty of them." This is not meant to be an excuse for more sin.
Not only is the Decalog a solidarity, and therefore, all men guilty of the breach of the whole of it, but what goes even further to show man’s inability to keep it, is that—
THE DECALOG IS A SPIRITUAL LAW
The scriptural proof of this is to be found in Paul’s statement in Rom. 7:14. "For we know that the law is spiritual…" What is meant by this? Doubtless several things.
First, this doubtless refers to the purpose of the Decalog, for it is no mere code of laws, prescribing only what the outward conduct is to be, without reference to the thoughts and intentions of the heart. This will become more evident when we get to the actual exposition of these Laws, and observe that there is a great deal more required by them than mere abstinence from transgressing the letter of them. This was the mistake made by the Pharisees. They thought that they had fulfilled the letter of the Law, but completely missed the spirit of it. To this Paul refers in Rom. 7:6 when he says, "But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter."
Men that are dead in trespasses and sins may keep the letter of the Law so as to satisfy themselves that they have done their duty. But not until one has been born again, and made partaker of a new nature is he able to understand the spirit of the Law of God. The Law itself is spiritual, and a carnal man can have no real understanding of, nor affinity with, a spiritual Law, I Cor. 2:11-14. Its deeper truths he cannot see, and therefore he will not understand its real purpose. He will seek life through it, instead of realizing that it condemns him and actually kills his self-confidence, or rather, manifests that he is spiritually dead. This was Paul’s experience, Rom. 7:9-11.
The Law is spiritual because it prescribes spiritual conduct—conduct not fulfilled by the mere keeping of the letter of the Law, but by the fulfilling of the spirit of it. Thus, in the second place, the Decalog is a spiritual Law, not only because of its requirements upon man, but also from its own content. For it is composed of a spirit, as well as a letter. It is for this reason that we find our Lord restating several of these Laws, and giving them a higher meaning than had hitherto been recognized by the Pharisees. The "higher teachings" of Jesus on the Decalog manifests that there is a spirit to the Law that is often overlooked by men, Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-39, 43-44. And if there is a spiritual aspect to the Law, then it is obvious that the Law is spiritual—spiritual both in its demands and in its nature.
Now while "the Word of God" in these latter two passages does not refer exclusively to the Ten Commandments, yet it must be obvious to all that it refers in part to them. For numerous other passages manifest that one of the chief purposes of the Law is to slay the carnal hopes of man of being justified by the keeping of the Law. It is the spirit of the Law, used by the Holy Spirit that manifests to the individual the thoughts and intents of his heart, and shows that these too are encompassed in the requirements of the Law. And that he is therefore defective before God, though he may not have outwardly violated the letter of the Law.
Once any person recognizes that the Decalog is a spiritual Law, he will be compelled to recognize that he cannot fulfill its requirements in the flesh, but must also be spiritual before he can hope to do the least requirements of the Law. It is this spiritual nature of the Decalog that, when rightly perceived, shows man his deficiency, and leads him to Christ Who "is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth," Rom. 10:4.
The Decalog was never meant to be the means of life to anyone, therefore it has not failed, but rather is eminently successful in its purpose when it shows that man is the one that has failed. So far from failing of its purpose, the Scriptures declare that—
THE DECALOG IS A PERFECT LAW
The psalmist writes in Ps. 19:7-11, "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great rewards."
However, the Law does not convert a person by that person keeping the Law, but rather by bringing that person into a right understanding of God’s requirements, and his own inability to measure up to them, so preparing him to see Christ’s righteousness as his only hope. It is, in a sense, like earthly standards, but this is one sent down from heaven, as C. H. MacIntosh says.
The Decalog is also perfect in the sense of being complete, for it touches all moral issues and regulates them. There is no conceivable violation of morals, but what is comprehended under one of these Ten Commandments. Thus, the apostle speaks of the Law in its manward aspect, and says: "Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law," Rom. 13:8-10. The Decalog touches all moral issues between man and man, and between man and God, and regulates them. This is evidently what the Psalmist meant when he said, "I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad," Ps. 119:96.
But the Decalog is not only exceeding broad, it is also very deep, being vast in its content, even though it is expressed in only "ten words," Exod. 34:28 (margin), or commandments. Not only vast in its content, but vast in its applications, for it goes to the very depth of hell itself to hold men guilty of their sins, and to bind them eternally to their guilt. It is deep in its meaning, for who can fully fathom the spirit of this perfect Law?
Again, the Decalog is perfect in its nature because it is also very high, for it came from heaven itself, and is a revelation of the spiritual atmosphere of that high and holy place where the Most High Himself dwells. Because of its high origin, it is high in its nature, being high in moral value, and high in its requirement. Who then can comprehend the perfection of this perfect Law.
But we see other evidences of the perfection of the Decalog in the description that Paul was inspired to give to it, for he says, Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good," Rom. 7:12. The Law, having come from God, could not be otherwise than holy, but it is also holy because it requires holiness on the part of those under it. It is just because all of its requirements are such as no one could reasonably find fault with, nor complain of injustice if the transgression of them were punished with the full severity threatened. It is good because it is designed for the highest and best interests of man himself. For while it slays all false and presumptuous hopes of life by keeping it, yet it leads one to the only hope of eternal life, Christ Himself. The only time the Law is not good is when men endeavor to use it unlawfully as the apostle again says. "But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully," I Tim. 1:8. The primary unlawful use to which the Law is put, is in endeavoring to be justified by keeping it’s high demands.
All of these things being true of the Decalog, our next thought is but a natural consequence, and yet, because of the self-righteousness and rebelliousness of the natural man, he seldom realizes or acknowledges that—
THE DECALOG IS A PERSONAL LAW
Though this code of laws was given to the nation of Israel, and was incorporated into its whole system of Law, yet it is nevertheless a very personal responsibility that comes with the Decalog. It is to be noted that each of these Ten Commandments uses the singular "Thou" instead of the plural pronoun "Ye," thus making it a very personal and individual matter. Too often people take such a wide view of laws that they completely overlook the personal responsibility involved in them, and are more concerned with the question "Why don’t people obey the Law," than with the question "Have I obeyed the Law."
One always pulls the teeth out of any law, human or Divine, when it is thought of in an abstract, impersonal way. For without the individual making personal application of any law, it has no force or bearing upon him, and might as well not exist for all the good it does. Of course, in the case of Divine Law, the Spirit of God is able to override man’s dullness, and make the application to the individual, and thankfully, this He does, else none would ever be saved.
Because it is a personal Law, the Decalog is in force regardless of what one’s parents or spouse or community may believe or practice, and each person is individually accountable for any violations or abuses of the Law. No one therefore can have contact with the Law, and then go away without being more responsible than he was before. Responsibility is one of the integral parts of any kind of law.
The Decalog must of necessity be a personal Law, for God deals with men as individuals, as well as dealing with them as families, nations and churches. But man has always sought to obscure the individual in the mass that responsibility might be lessened. This is doubtless why God always speaks in the Decalog in a personal and individual way.
In the New Testament, when we find Jesus restating these commandments, this personal and individual aspect is again emphasized, and though He may have been speaking to a multitude, yet He always reduced it to the personal level. Thus in Matt. 5:21-22: "Ye (plural) have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou (singular) shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, that whosoever (singular) is angry," etc. The same thing applies in Matt. 5:27, 33, 43, 19:18; 22:37-40, and other places where Jesus and the New Testament writers make reference to the Decalog. The reason for this lies in the fact that all sin is personal and individual. This is shown in the above verses where "whosoever shall kill" is in the third person singular. Men may band together and collectively sin, but the sin is imputed individually, and men are individually accountable.
Thus, the nature of the Decalog has a great deal to do with our proper understanding of it, and without a proper understanding of it, we cannot hope to fulfill our obligations concerning it. An understanding of the nature of the Decalog lays the groundwork for us to understand the purposes of it, which shall be the subject of the next chapter.
THE PURPOSES OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS