When I was a child our family faithfully worshiped at a local Christian Reformed church. Every Sunday morning the pastor read the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. By the time he droned on into the second commandment I usually had tuned him out.
The routine of reading the same passage week after week may have been theologically justified, but it didn’t make much psychological sense. It was difficult for me, and it’s difficult for most people, to pay attention to words repeated over and over. And simply reading the commandments is little help in understanding them in depth. So I understand why most Christian Reformed churches have abandoned the routine of reading the Decalogue in worship services. I’m not interested in having this routine reinstated. I am interested, however, in finding better ways of accomplishing what the reading of the Decalogue was intended to do.
So why did we have to hear the law read week after week? The point of reading the Decalogue was to help us understand God’s prescriptive will for our lives. Equipped with the knowledge of God’s will, we can discover new facets of our sinfulness and be reminded again of our need for the Savior. This use of the law is stated in Lord’s Day 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which asks us, “How do you come to know your misery?” The answer is “The law of God tells me.”
Another use of the law is that a fresh hearing of God’s will helps us to understand more clearly how God wants us to respond to the grace he has given us in Jesus Christ. Lord’s Days 34-44 of the catechism explain the Ten Commandments individually to help Christians distinguish right and wrong conduct.
So how can we arrange for a weekly engagement with God’s will in our worship? One helpful strategy for avoiding repetition and misunderstanding is to read God’s will from other parts of Scripture. Many passages express God’s will for us in one or several areas of our lives. Deuteronomy is a rich source for instructions about God’s will, as are the prophets and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Paul’s epistles have all kinds of instructions about God’s will for us, for example, Galatians 5, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3, and Romans 12. It’s true these passages are not the comprehensive summary we find in the commandments, but what they lack in comprehensiveness, they supply in giving us more detail about specific aspects of our lives.
The Heidelberg Catechism offers another helpful source for learning more about God’s will. A litany comprising a Lord’s Day question and answer about the meaning of one of the commandments can help keep the instruction fresh. Or we could use just the duties of the commandments as they are explained in the catechism one week, and the negative implications the next week. The Westminster Confession, too, while not one of the forms of unity in the CRC, includes a thorough Reformed analysis of each commandment.
Finally, we can look to Christian writers who properly and beautifully explain God’s will for us. These explanations need to be selected with care for use in worship, but with the exercise of theologically informed wisdom many of them prove helpful for seeing God’s will for our lives in a fresh and revealing way.
Being reminded of how God designed us to live and what kind of lives please God should be regular elements in our worship together.For Discussion
- Discuss the use of the Ten Commandments in your church’s worship and how they impact your life.
- Cal Van Reken says that the commandments help us to understand God’s will for our lives and give us guidance in responding to God’s grace. He goes on to describe resources beside the commandments that can offer this wisdom, both for personal use and during communal worship. What personal resource do you find to be most helpful? Why?
- What suggestion for an alternative worship resource appeals to you? How could your church benefit from using this resource?
- What inspires you about this article? What educates your faith?