The Decalogue

The Decaloguedecalogue_tablets_rembrandt_wiki_PD

Reformers see the Mosaic Law revealed in Scripture in three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. We see the moral law as eternal and universal, as shown in Romans 2: For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. The challenge for us is to rightly determine what within the Mosaic Law is moral and what is ceremonial or civil. We can see how diligent one must be in this regard by considering the book of Leviticus – the first half is a varied mixture of the two, often within the same verse.

While most reformers simply take the Decalogue as God’s moral law as a unit, there is a mixture of moral and ceremonial or civil law in the tablets. It appears to shine forth God’s moral law in addition to codifying Israel’s national identity. For example, nearly everyone agrees with the change in the day of the week wherein God’s people gather; not by command of Scripture, but by example therein based on the day in which Christ was raised from the dead. The command to meet on the 7th day must not be a moral command, having been changed without command; it must be ceremonial or civil. What else in the Decalogue is ceremonial or civil? Also, which version of the Decalogue is eternal and unchanging? The two versions recorded in Scripture have some variance (the substance of which is not easily dismissed as textual variants), further revealing the mixture of eternal moral commands and temporal ceremonial or civil commands. The problem for us is that God did not see fit to reveal to us or preserve for us the exact Ten Words written on the stone tablets. What Moses wrote in the Scripture has more words in some of the commandments than we think God specified on the tablets. Let us take a look at the Decalogue to see more truly what is moral and eternal. May the Lord God of Heaven and Earth be our wisdom in this and all matters, that He would be glorified and His people edified.


Exodus 20

Deuteronomy 5

[2] “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.


[6] “‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

[3] “You shall have no other gods before me.


[7] “‘You shall have no other gods before me.

[4] “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [5] You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.


[8] “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [9] You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, [10] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

[7] “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.


[11] “‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

[8] “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. [9] Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, [10] but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. [11] For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.


[12] “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. [13] Six days you shall labor and do all your work, [14] but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. [15] You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

[12] “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.


[16] “‘Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

[13] “You shall not murder.


[17] “‘You shall not murder.

[14] “You shall not commit adultery.


[18] “‘And you shall not commit adultery.

[15] “You shall not steal.


[19] “‘And you shall not steal.

[16] “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.


[20] “‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

[17] “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”


[21] “‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’

Overview: A basic guide to proper hermeneutics is to recognize the context and audience of a given passage of Scripture. We cringe when folks take Jeremiah 29:11 out of context and claim it as a personal promise, even though we see biblical principles therein which can be rightly applied. I wonder why Sabbatarians fail to do this with the Decalogue. The biblical context for each mention of the Decalogue or the ark of the covenant shows the Decalogue to be an integral part of the Mosaic Covenant and the testimony or witness of that covenant (Ex 31:18, 32:15, 34:27 – 29). This key aspect of the Decalogue being a testimony of God’s covenant with Israel is further developed in Ex 25 and 26, with the ark being the “ark of the testimony” (see Ex 25:22 for emphasis). This is reminiscent of Ex 16:33 – 34 when Moses was commanded to put manna in a jar as a testimony God’s promise of provisions, seen in Ex 16:4 – 5. These are the most (only?) explicit statements in the Bible regarding the reason and purpose for the tablets and the ark – as a testimony of God’s covenant with Israel made on Mt. Sinai. Paedobaptists claim infant baptism as the sign and the seal of the New Covenant, equal to the sign and seal of the Old Covenant, circumcision. They also are the originators of making the testimony of the Old Covenant equal to God’s eternal moral law that binds all men. But where do we see the warrant in the text for appropriating the testimony of the Sinai Covenant as binding on those in the New Covenant? Romans 7:1 tells us Christians are not bound by the law because we have died to it.

As an aside, Exodus 34 does not provide a third version of the law, as some insist. This passage provides a narrative summary without the detailed, specific listing of all of the commandments. The focus of chapters 34 and following are the worship of God, as He instructed and required of the Hebrew people how they were to observe the Sabbath and build the tabernacle.

Let’s now take a look at a few examples of how ceremonial/civil law is mixed with moral law within the Decalogue.

2nd commandment: Does the Lord eternally visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Him? Or is this curse actually a reflection of the Hebrew federal headship of fathers and the penalty for idolatry? We see in Deuteronomy 24 and Ezekiel 18 that sons will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. Therefore, mustn’t we see that part of this commandment is not eternal and moral, and therefore, temporal and ceremonial or civil?

4th commandment: Many people argue for the perpetual and universal application of the 4th commandment by pointing out the word, “Remember”, in the version from Exodus 20; claiming this shows that the the Hebrews knew of this law from ancient times, despite no record of observance by man prior to being taught about the Sabbath in Exodus 16. Indeed, God’s Holy Scriptures (Neh 9:13-14) tell us the Sabbath was given by God to the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai, not from the garden. How is it a creation ordinance if not given to man until Sinai? The word, “remember” can also mean to “keep in mind”; thus this word does not prove the case of those who hold to alleged long-time practice of keeping the Sabbath. YHWH reminds the Hebrews of His resting on the first 7th day as the reason for this commandment. The same commandment in Deuteronomy begins with, “Observe”, reinforcing the idea that “remember” (in Exodus) means “to keep in mind”; and goes on to provide reasons why the Hebrews should keep His Sabbath: remember how the Lord brought them out of Egypt; that their exodus from Egypt, reminding them of God’s protection, etc., is the reason they, the people of Israel, are to keep the Sabbath. These are not directly applicable to New Covenant Christians, unless one flattens out the distinctives between the old and new covenants, as paedobaptists do. Again, does not this show us that some of what is recorded in the Decalogue is temporal and ceremonial or civil? Ezekiel 20:12 tells us the Sabbath is a sign between God and the Hebrews – marking their exodus from Egypt. It is not listed as a sign for the church, any more than water baptism is a sign and seal of that New Covenant.

We read in Colossians 2 not to let anyone judge us on questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath because these are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. This pattern of days refers to all of the holy days of the Jews, from yearly feasts to the weekly Sabbath, and comes from repeated descriptions of the Mosaic ritual, found in 1 Chron 23:30-31; 2 Chron 2:4, 8:12-13, 31:3; Neh 10:33; Isaiah 1:13-14; Ezek 45:17; and Hosea 2:11. This is another indication that the Mosaic code, of which the Decalogue is part, does not apply to Christian as a law – but as a type or shadow of the Christ to come. Our exodus is not from Egypt; that country is a type for sin and wickedness. The moral law, though it is revealed within the Mosaic code, is eternal and no more uniquely part of that Sinai covenant than the New Covenant is – though the covenant of grace was progressively revealed over time, even within the era of the Mosaic Covenant.

There is no record in Scripture of any mention or observance of a “Christian Sabbath.” History shows a creeping incrementalism towards that idea, being codified by the Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas, who opined that the Decalogue was God’s moral law, binding for all people. Early reformers, including John Calvin, did not hold to a Christian Sabbath, although Sunday worship was normal since Apostolic times and embraced by these men. The moral law was clearly seen, the ceremonial or civil brought into the visible church by man. The New Testament shows Christians gathering for worship, teaching, fellowship, and much more on the first day of the week (“the day after the Sabbath” in the Greek; does this not make the use of the term “Christian Sabbath” all the more strange?) – but this does not reflect the keeping of the Jewish Sabbath on the next day as some claim. This argument is akin to the paedobaptists’ argument for infant baptism based on the several “household baptisms” found in Scripture – claiming a practice so common place that nobody mentioned it. The sabbath rest promised in Hebrews 4:8 – 11 refers to our resting in Christ, ceasing from our works as God ceased from His work of creation on His Sabbath; not keeping a pale imitation of the Jewish Sabbath on the day after the Sabbath.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of testimony, is to be forgotten (Jr 3:15-16): “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, declares the LORD, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again.” Might these testimonies of the Mosaic Covenant be types and shadows that point us to something greater, as so much of what God gave Israel in that covenant is properly recognized as?

5th commandment: Most of us do not teach our children that they will live longer and inherit land promised to them if they obey us. We ought to teach our children to obey us parents because such is honorable in the eyes of God, because He has commanded them to do so. Does not this commandment also reveal a mixture of eternal and moral law with temporal and ceremonial or civil law? We know Paul quotes this command with the promise in Ephesians 6, yet in the new covenant this “promised land” is eternal life – that children might receive blessings from God; encouraging parents to faithful instruction and exhorting children to faithful learning. Again, language in the Decalogue that is shown in the New Testament to be a type – the temporal used to foreshadow the spiritual.

Written in Stone: There are those who claim that since God wrote the Decalogue on stone tablets with His own finger, the Ten Words are eternal and morally binding. Yet the first set of tablets was destroyed and the second set of tablets (which may or may not have been written on by God, see Exodus 34:27 – 28) has been lost (intentionally – recall Jer 3:15-16) to antiquity. We do not have a record in Scripture of what was written on these tablets; we have what Moses told Israel as part of the Sinai Covenant. Are the stone tablets sacred? We see in Scripture that temporal objects made of stone are not eternal – the hearts of stone are replaced with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); the message of Christ is written on the hearts of His people, not on tablets of stone (2 Corinthians 3:3); the fine Jewish temple of noble stones would be torn down (never to be useful again) and replaced by a temple of Christ’s body (John 2:19 – 20). Why would the stone tablets of testimony of the covenant God made with national Israel be morally binding on all men, or on members of the New Covenant? Or are they merely the testimony of the Mosaic Covenant with Israel, reflecting God’s moral law as part of that covenant?

In the mid 17th century, English Baptist John Grantham was defending the doctrine of the credibility of then-modern Bibles as the Word of God. He saw the wisdom of God in allowing the autographs to be lost, as men would revere them as relics and be led astray as in the Roman Catholic Church. With numerous credible copies, he argued, all men would be more peaceable since God had given to all equal access to His word. Does the reverence some men give to the Decalogue approach relic worship? All things considered, it does not appear that the stone tablets of testimony are sacred to God. We remind ourselves that what He has revealed to us in Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness, so pointing to stone tablets He has not given us is not a proper argument for interpreting the written Word He has given us.

New Testament: The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17ff) is often described as exposition of the Decalogue, yet this address to Jews by the Lord Jesus does not cover all Ten Words. In fact, there is no clear New Testament teaching that encompasses the entire Decalogue as a unit or all Ten Words individually; no teaching that assigns them as binding on Christians, much less all men. Would not the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 been the perfect place for this topic to be addressed? Circumcision is often used as shorthand for the Law of Moses; this was the issue at this council. Sent to Gentile Christians were specific instructions on Christian love (not putting a stumbling block in the path of a brother), but nothing about law keeping, which is what Sabbath keeping is. Hebrews 9:1-5 calls the Decalogue, “tablets of the covenant”, the Mosaic Covenant.

Matthew 22:34 – 40 is said to be summation of the Decalogue. But that text says “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus tells us that the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets (the balance of the Old Testament) hang on the two greatest commandments – not that they hang on the Decalogue. By claiming that these commandments (taken from Deut 6 and Lev 19 – not from Ex 20) only sum-up the Decalogue puts them in too low of a position. All of the then-known Scriptures depend upon them, in the same way that they point to Christ, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The proper love of God and love of the brotherhood cannot be reduced to Ten Words on stone tablets. It must be written by God on tablets of flesh in the hearts of His people – it is a far, far greater thing than the type and the testimony given to Israel on Mt. Sinai. The Law of Moses serves its purpose – keeping sinners until faith in Christ comes (Gal 3:24 – 25) and it continues (Matt 5:17) for all born into the covenant of works that binds non-elect until Judgment Day. Short and to the point, 2 Cor 3 contrasts these two concepts better than I am able.

In Closing, it does make perfect sense for the Presbyterians to appropriate the covenants given specifically to the nation of Israel, because they see equivalence between the church and ancient Israel, both members of the same covenant with wheat and chaff therein. Baptist ought to see the nation of Israel mainly as a type, fulfilled in Christ in the New Covenant in His blood, wherein only the redeemed enjoy the far greater benefits of that covenant. The Decalogue reflects God’s moral law given to Adam and deployed it with terms that were types and shadows of Who was to come, marking His temporal people as distinctly His, as His Spirit marks His eternal people as His. The 1689 LB Confession, in chapter 1 paragraph 1, declares something not found in the Westminster document: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” May we rightly see this as a call for us Baptists to be faithful to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and not be misled by what men have built up as tradition.

If we are to walk humbly before men and God, we must not stand on what men have taught us, but seek wisdom from the Lord, as revealed in Scriptures. Sola Scriptura must be our foundation of knowing, serving and loving our God and His people; Sempre Reformanda to keep us from clinging wrongly to our beloved traditions.

An unworthy servant of the triumphant Lamb,

Stuart Brogden

2 thoughts on “The Decalogue

  1. Good summary explaining why the Ten Words should not be venerated or esteemed beyond the rest of Scripture. Those who do see the fact that they were written on stone as a statement of their enduring quality, however, it is better understood as a contrast with hearts of flesh upon which the Lord desires to write His word. The Ten Commandments were broken because of the hardness of man’s heart. I hadn’t thought of Jer 3:15-16 figuring in before (pun intended).


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