Whatever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

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?

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (2)


Thanks Len for the walk down memory lane.  I also remember when keeping the 4th commandment meant:  no play (maybe inside, but not outside), staying in our Sunday clothes all day, not buying the Sunday newspaper, and never going out to a restaurant.  It also meant criticizing my Methodist neighbor (doubting his Christianity) because he sometimes went out on Sunday afternoon after church to do some plowing.  This is what it meant to keep the Sabbath.  In practice, the commandment had little to do with what we would actually do (except go to church) on Sunday, but was about what we would not or could not do.  The 4th  commandment, like most the other commandments were prohibitions, declaring what we would not do. (Do not steal, do not lie, do not murder, do not commit adultery) All negative and prohibitive.

If you recall the Old Testament and the gospels, that was the nature of the Jewish religion when Jesus appeared on the scene.  Of course the Pharisees added a lot more prohibitions.  If the basic character of the Jewish religion was prohibitive, then the more prohibitions and legalisms the better.  To the Jews of Jesus’ day, pleasing and honoring God (even living a thankful life) meant living according to the prohibitions most basically formulated in the ten commandments, and then further expanded to include laws regulating all of life and living.  The Pharisees could have well been the first to say “not one square inch....”   As God’s liberated people, the Jews likely said the same thing you suggest Len, “We keep coming back to them (the commandments) 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.”  And yet Jesus said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  The Pharisees loved the law and wanted nothing more than to keep the law as perfectly as they were able.  And of course, they were just as critical of Jesus as he was of them.  Why?

Jesus thumbed his nose at many of the Jew’s cherished laws.  Law keeping was not the end all for Jesus.  Law keeping might be a good measure of justice and fairness for all, but it isn’t a measure of love.  Law works well in governing a state or nation, but it stopped at justice.  Law might have worked well if the Messiah should come back in the way the Jews were expecting to set up a theocracy, in which God’s law would rule the nation.  But Jesus made clear, his kingdom is different.  Jesus’ kingdom is to be ruled not by justice, but by love and compassion, which goes way beyond justice and, in fact, is different.  You can legislate law, but you cannot legislate love and compassion.  That’s why when Jesus was asked which is the greatest of the commandments, he pointed to love for God and neighbor, rather than any of the prohibitions.  I doubt that Jesus was thinking of love for God and neighbor as a summary of the law, but was pointing out the difference between what the Pharisees were advocating and what Jesus was teaching.

Over and over again Jesus called his followers to exhibit love and compassion, not justice.  Jesus said that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will separate the sheep from the goats and only the sheep will enter into the kingdom.  The sheep were those who showed compassion (not justice) to those in need.  And as it was done unto the least of these, it was done as unto Christ.  For Christ, his kingdom was to be characterized by compassion, rather than justice.

So I’m a little confused by this putting of the law or the commandments on a pedestal, as you seem to do in this article.  I would have thought you would put “love and compassion” on the pedestal.  That’s what Jesus did.

The Ten Commandments serve only to show us that we can't meet God's standard of perfection and holiness. Thanks to God's wondrous grace Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf. As believers we want to heed Christ's directive to love God and neighbor. Hence, we don't need the Ten Commandments read on Sunday as guidelines for holy living. God's law is etched on our hearts not on tablets of stone.