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Whatever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

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The Ten Commandments reveal the moral grain of the universe.

Many old-timers like me will remember when the Ten Commandments were read each Sunday in worship, usually before a confession of sin. Some churches still recite the commandments in worship, but many do not. Why is that?

To get at this question, it’s best to step back and understand what the Ten Commandments mean for Christians—who, as Paul says, are “free from the law” (Rom. 8:2). John Calvin famously outlined three “uses” for the Ten Commandments. First, he said, the law is meant to point to our sinfulness by mirroring the perfect righteousness and holiness of God. Second, the law is meant to restrain evil. As Calvin put it, “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.” And third, to reveal the path of freedom and holiness to those who desire to please God.

It’s that third use of the law that is particularly relevant for our lives. When the law is read we sometimes miss the all-important opening line: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the land of slavery.” In other words, the whole Decalogue is an expression of the way free people live. It’s not meant to restrict us or tie us down but to reveal how things work best in God’s world. Just as a woodworker needs to know the grain of the wood in order to bring out its strength and beauty, the commandments reveal the moral grain of the universe.

That’s why the Ten Commandments are featured in the Heidelberg Catechism—and all other catechisms—as one of the essential things Christians need to know. And in the Heidelberg it comes under the rubric of thankfulness. It’s the way we redeemed and liberated people show our thankfulness to God—by living in the freedom of God’s children in the world God made. When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-38). He understood that the Ten Commandments boil down to two essential mandates: how we are to love God and how we are to love our neighbor.

All three uses of the law Calvin describes are important. But we keep coming back to them over and over again because they so vividly describe the kind of liberated and grateful life to which we are called. They tell us how to live wisely and well in God’s world.

They help us answer the daily issues we face. What does the Sabbath mean for us in our 24/7 culture? What does not using God’s name in vain mean in a day when “OMG” is a common messaging punctuation and when politicians and businesses use God’s name to pump their own platform or brand? How do we honor our parents when they are wasting away with Alzheimer’s? What does “you shall not murder” mean for capital punishment, or warfare, or gun control?

With all that in mind, it might not be a bad idea at all to recite these timeless commandments regularly in worship, especially after the confession of sin, as a way to describe the kind of life in which we love God and our neighbor.

Online Questions for Discussion

  • How often does your church read the Ten Commandments? How do you feel about it being read or not read?
  • Which of the “three uses of the law” discussed in this article do you typically associate with the Ten Commandments?
  • How would you answer those sample questions near the end of the article about Sabbath, taking God’s name in vain, honoring our parents, and murder?
  • What other contemporary applications of the Ten Commandments do you struggle with?
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