(This is part 2 of a series on the Ten Commandments.)
Perhaps the most common mistake made when teaching the ten commandments (1oC) is to start with the first commandment. This is a misstep because it treats the 10C as if the Israelites just found them carved on a rock in the desert. It rips them from their locus in the biblical story. For this reason, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) admonishes us to pay attention to the preface of the 10C, the words that God spoke before he started listing commands:
Q. 101. What is the preface to the Ten Commandments?
A. The preface to the Ten Commandments is contained in these words, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments.
The preface draws our attention to who God is, and who is he to those who receive the 10C? First, he is their covenant God. In the most general sense, a covenant is simply a contractual agreement. But this covenant harks back to the covenant God made with Abraham, in which he pledged, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7-8).
In the covenant, God promises to us not simply blessings or good fortune, but himself. Humans could never scrounge up some sort of leverage to demand God, but he offers Himself freely. What does he want in return? Us. In the preface, then, we see that the 10C is less like a contract and more like marriage vows. These vows describe what the relationship ideally looks like, when each partner lives for the other. Refusing to live by the 10C is, therefore, more than just rule-breaking; it is rejecting intimacy with God.
The second way God reveals himself to us is as our redeemer God. At the time the 10C were given, He had brought the Israelites out of a land of slavery and was leading them toward a promised land of freedom and prosperity. By this act God foreshadowed his ultimate plan of redemption (the very word “redeem” meaning to buy out of slavery). Jesus was sacrificed as a Passover Lamb for sins, and in his resurrection he trampled over all our enemies — sin, Satan, and death — in order to bring us to God.
The law is for people who are slaves no more. More specifically, it is to prevent free people from falling back into the slavery from which they were delivered. Having lived in slavery since birth, we don’t immediately know how to live like free people once we become free. We tend to revert to our familiar slavery. Sin is a merciless taskmaster, and even believers can fall under its whip again if they so choose (Rom. 6:16), but God is ever rescuing them. God’s law does not shackle; it breaks shackles. The 10C, then, are a guidebook for free people, a manifesto of the good life.
However we preface the law, though, it does seem to be in tension with grace. There are numerous passages in the New Testament about the weakness of the law or the bondage of the law or the inferiority of the law. What are we to make of them? Here is Wilhelm Niesel’s paraphrase of Calvin’s teaching on this issue:
If in the New Testament Paul at times speaks of the law in itself, that is only because he wishes to expose the error of those who imagine that man can acquire righteousness by fulfilling the works of the law. But in point of fact the law does not stand thus as an isolated phenomenon. It is not simply a collection of commands about how to live well, but is included in the covenant of grace which God founded.
The tension arises precisely when people ignore the preface and treat the law as something it is not. If they think of it as their entry point into relationship with God or as a means by which they can free themselves from slavery, then it becomes twisted. In this case, it is absolutely opposed to the gospel. In one sense, the law was never meant for us to fulfill. Niesel invokes Calvin on this point as well:
In [Christ] the law has completed its function of judging and punishing, and this has effected the final fulfillment of the law and of the will of God which it represents. For our sakes, and in the sight of God, Jesus Christ walked in the way prescribed by the law; and now we must allow the law to invite us simply to follow in His footsteps.
If we see the law as the depiction of our relationship with God, as the guide to living the free life, as the body of requirements that Christ fulfilled, we can rejoice in it. We can obey it, and when we fail, Christ obeyed it for us.
Psalm 119:18 — Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.