Our Love Affair With The Ten Commandments

We have an ongoing affection and preoccupation with the Ten Commandments. Some cheer and applaud statements like that. This is particularly true of Reformed groups and those tending toward legalism and a legalistic view of the Christian life. Many times, those are the same groups.  But I have a different opinion. I think our preoccupation with the Ten Commandments is not only unhealthy, but has no place reigning in the conscience of a believer today.

Let’s interact for the next few minutes with an on-line devotional hosted by Ligonier Ministries entitled, Teaching the Law. The article begins with a quote from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah:

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:8)

The devotional goes on to state the following claim:

God, in fact, wants the Ten Commandments “preached pointedly,” as question 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism explains. The answer to this question tells us why our Creator desires for His people to understand His statutes.

One thing I’ve come to realize about those who adhere to Covenant or Reformed Theology is their tendency to cite their creeds and catechisms as authoritative as though they were on par with Scripture. They would never admit to that or say it that way, but that’s been my observation. This is one example.  The first piece of evidence provided to us is that God wants the Ten Commandments “preached pointedly” because the Heidelberg Catechism says so. To Ligonier’s credit, they do turn to Scripture after citing the catechism:

First, let us consider the biblical evidence that God wants church leaders to preach and teach His commandments. Today’s passage, for example, records Ezra’s reading of the Mosaic law to the Israelites after they returned from exile. The author clearly approves of this act, as well as the Levites’ explanation of God’s rules to Israel (Neh. 8:1–12). In reading the commandments, Ezra and the Levites fulfilled the command to preach and teach regularly the Mosaic law (Deut. 31:9–13).

I believe this statement is misleading because Nehemiah 8 makes no mention of the Ten Commandments. In fact, the entire law of Moses was being read – all 613 commands in context. This is evidenced by the fact that the Feast of Booths was reinstated following the reading (vv 13-18). They didn’t get that from the Ten Commandments. If we use this passage as a proof text for claiming “God wants church leaders to preach and teach His commandments”, we ignore the historical context in which it took place. All of those involved in this event were under the Old Covenant and were obligated to keep the covenant. If we conclude, as Ligonier does, that church leaders need to preach this same message, we better be ready to reinstate all 613 commands of Moses including the feasts, fasts, sacrifices, and the legal obligations of the Old Covenant because that’s what Israel understood was happening following Ezra’s reading of the law. This is way beyond the Ten Commandments:

“We also take on ourselves the obligation to give yearly a third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the showbread, the regular grain offering, the regular burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moons, the appointed feasts, the holy things, and the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.  We, the priests, the Levites, and the people, have likewise cast lots for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, according to our fathers’ houses, at times appointed, year by year, to burn on the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the Law. We obligate ourselves to bring the firstfruits of our ground and the firstfruits of all fruit of every tree, year by year, to the house of the LORD;  also to bring to the house of our God, to the priests who minister in the house of our God, the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, as it is written in the Law, and the firstborn of our herds and of our flocks; and to bring the first of our dough, and our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the wine and the oil, to the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and to bring to the Levites the tithes from our ground, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all our towns where we labor.” (Nehemiah 10:32–37)

In his excellent book, Clash of the Covenants: Escaping Religious Bondage Through The Grace Guarantee, Mike Kapler notes that we read and teach the Old and New Covenants as though they were in sync. But they are 180 degrees out of sync. The mistake we make is in trying to force Old Covenant law into the New Covenant and make it binding on the conscience of a believer today. That always results in disaster, confusion, and false guilt. The article continues:

But why does God want His law preached regularly under the new covenant? Today’s passage also helps answer this question. When Ezra read the commandments to the Israelites, “all the people wept” under conviction of their sin (Neh. 8:9). This covenant community included regenerate people, so we see the ongoing function of the law of God to remind us of our sin and weakness, and to drive us to repentance… Believers who are confronted with their sin in the preaching of God’s law are never left to wallow in their misery. As the Spirit convicts us and drives us to the cross, He also assures us that we are free and forgiven in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:12–171 John 1:8–9).

I believe this statement reveals a misunderstanding of how the Holy Spirit treats believers. In his explanation to the disciples about the soon-to-be-given Holy Spirit, Jesus told them he would convict the world of sin. There is no mention of convicting believers of sin. Instead, he told them the Holy Spirit would be a guide who would speak Jesus to us and remind us who we are in him (John 16:4-15). In other words, he would preach the gospel to our hearts, not treat us as convicts or bring us into a place of misery as suggested above. This is what happens when we mix the covenants and try to force what is restricted to the Old Covenant into the New. Confusion and false guilt result.

Remember also that repentance means simply to change one’s mind. To think differently about something. I have repented of so many things, I’ve lost count. But the 1 John 1:9 passage cited above has nothing to do with ongoing confession of sin to somehow keep a clean slate. In the context of chapter one, it’s addressed to those in the assembly who have yet to believe, who are outside the faith, and who think they have no sin problem. 1 John chapter one is evangelistic and John writes to them first so that they “may have fellowship with us” because “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (vs. 10) This passage is evangelistic and in no way refers to our responsibility to make sure we keep confessing sin over and over up to this point in time. Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all (Hebrews 7:27), never to be repeated. And so is our cleansing. I John 1:9 isn’t evidence that the Holy Spirit convicts believers of sin over and over again until they repent. It’s a proclamation of the gospel. You who don’t believe, confess your sin and you’ll be cleansed of ALL unrighteousness. How many times do I have to be cleansed of ALL unrighteousness?

The Words of a Different Covenant and a Ministry of Death

What does the New Testament say about the Ten Commandments and the Old Covenant? Quite a bit actually. Here are a couple examples related to our topic:

  • The Old Covenant was historically time-bound and has been rendered obsolete by the coming of Jesus (Hebrews 8:13).
  • The Old Covenant produced a people enslaved to sin (Galatians 4:21-31).
  • The Ten Commandments belong to the Old Covenant. There were the “words of the covenant” and the “tablets of the covenant” (Exodus 34:28, Deut. 9:11).
  • The New Testament calls the Ten Commandments a ministry of death and condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7-11).

The Ten Commandments and the entire Mosaic law and Old Covenant are out of sync and contrary and inferior to the New Covenant. The two covenants don’t mix. The New Covenant is a better covenant built on better promises with a better hope and a better Priest who made a better sacrifice (Hebrews 8). I think it’s time we ditch our love affair with the Ten Commandments. They’re toxic in this age of the Spirit.


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