This small book delves into the meaning of the Ten Commandments for the church of Christ. Reisinger focuses on the relationship between the Decalogue and the Mosaic law-covenant, and the corollary topic whether the Sabbath is applicable as a moral commandment for the church age. For centuries now, the church has used the Ten Commandments to inculcate Christian ethical standards. When a Christian is asked about the moral law, the image of Moses holding the tablets of stone is first to come to mind. When did this begin?
This began with Luther’s Treatise on Good Works (1520) and his catechisms (1529)[i] which used the Ten Commandments as a format to teach moral principles to parishioners. At that time, many unbelievers were compelled to go to Mass every Sunday. They slept in church, talked aloud, and even played games. After church, they would go to the pubs and get drunk. More pious parishioners thought their good behavior was meritorious for salvation or compensated for their sins. In his catechism, Luther briefly explains what the Sabbath commandment means for Christians:
“You shall sanctify the holy day. [Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.] What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
Luther reduced a complex Jewish ritual law into a simple statement: attend to the preaching of God’s word [every week]. For Luther, the Sabbath as practiced at the synagogue represented the faithful weekly attendance of God’s people to the hearing and study of God’s word, and then actually applying what was learned at home and at work. His desire was that those attending church would have this heart in them and faithfully learn God’s word, as Sunday preaching was the only means to hear God’s word. It was not to keep Sabbath with a 24-hour rest from all manner of work.
Luther also emphasized the distinction between the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ to emphasize the contrast between works and faith, but some interpreted this to mean that there was no law for Christians. Those who rationalized the gospel of Christ in this way were called “antinomians”—those who stood against the law or believed that they were guided by no law except the Holy Spirit. The reaction of other Reformers was … reactive; and ensuing theological statements advanced the “proper uses of the law” as opposed to any misconstrued understandings of Paul’s teaching that Christians are “dead to the law” (Rom 7:1ff). Connected to this controversy was whether the Mosaic law was a “covenant of works” by which it were possible to be saved. Of course, OT saints could not be saved by the law; they were saved by grace (Rom 11:6; Gal 3:21). And so, the idea was put forth that the law of Moses was really a “covenant of grace.” Eventually, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) took center stage among English speaking countries and became the foundational “secondary standard” for many Protestant churches. The WCF teaches that after Adam fell, God instituted a “covenant of grace” and this one covenant was administered differently during the two testaments.
“This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel. Under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament. . . There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” (Chapter 7)
The “good and necessary” inference was that the Ten Commandments epitomized the moral law of God from the time of Adam to the present day.
“God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.” (Chapter 19)
Churches that assent to the WCF and its children are taught that the Ten Words are a summary of moral law, as opposed to a summary of the Mosaic covenant. This is contrary to Moses’ claim that the covenant was made with Israel and not with the fathers—not with Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, and less so with Adam.
With this as a backdrop, Reisinger’s criticism of “covenant theology” and “theological systems,” his antipathy for being labeled as an “antinomian” for questioning the biblicity of the WCF, and his proposition that the Ten Commandments are NOT a summary of moral law finds context. Overall, his thesis has biblical support and this makes it a worthwhile read. There are a few foibles, but I’ll mention only one.
I wish that Reisinger’s book began with a statement of the problem facing the church that he aims to set straight, as well as references for the ideas and statements that he mentions (i.e, p. 95). I thought at first that he was being gracious to avoid mentioning names, but he eventually implicated “Covenant Theology” as presented in the Westminster Confession of Faith and derivative faith statements. With a knowledge of what the WCF actually says, it becomes obvious how its emphasis on the unity of the old and new covenants misrepresents the contrasts that abound in the NT corpus. Furthermore, the WCF proposition that the Ten Commandments are a summary of moral law is without merit. On this point, Reisinger shines. Reisinger repetitively brings the reader back to the plain sense of those texts mentioning the Ten Commandments and makes cogent arguments against the misleading verbiage in the WCF. The tables of stone are clearly a summary document of the covenant between Israel and God (not the church and God). The Mosaic covenant is over and the church is now under a new covenant. As Reisinger continues, he knows that some readers will react and say, “Don’t we have a law to obey?” Of course, Christians have a law, and it is the law of Christ. Moral duties for the church are to be defined by the covenant we are under. The Ten Commandments, he argues, are a vital part of the Christian life, but only as applied and interpreted by the Lord and the apostles—just as other OT texts are considered by the NT writers.
The ideas that Reisinger is challenging are entrenched in “confessional” churches and took centuries to develop into the one-liner—yet biblically indefensible—maxims that they are today. It is time to re-examine the wording of some of these historic theological statements and make them more true to the Scriptures, especially if church members are expected to assent to them without granting the taking of exceptions.
[i] “The first Catholic catechism was written after the Council of Trent which took place in 1546 and was published in 1566 and called the Roman Catechism. A new catechism was not created until 1994 called The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Other bishops in various parts of the world may have produced a catechism, such as the Baltimore Catechism of 1885, but there was not a universal catechism produced between the years 1566 and 1994.” http://www.aboutcatholics.com/beliefs/the-role-of-the-catechism-of-the-catholic-church/ (accessed July 28, 2017).
Ten Commandments/Decalogue. The Ten Commandments, or Ten Words, are the major part of the engraved covenant given to Israel by God from Mount Sinai shortly after the Exodus (Ex 20:1-17). “The Decalogue provides the basis for the covenant with all of Israel.”[i] The prologue identifies the parties to the covenant—the Lord God who makes nations bow to His will and the formerly enslaved and now redeemed Israelites who are to serve a new Master—and it is followed by ten laws. This collection of laws attains special status since they were specifically inscribed on stone by the hand of God and called the “Ten Words” (Ex 34:28; Deut 4:13). The manner in which the Lord conveyed His message with lightning and thundering, and the unique presentation of a miraculously hewn document that capsulized the covenant between Israel and Himself, impressed the whole camp of the Lord’s cosmic authority. He is the sovereign God of heaven and earth, yet He is establishing a covenant agreement with the least of all nations for the sake of His promise to Abraham. The Ten Commandments (with the prologue) are essentially the core document of the Mosaic covenant, kept as it was in the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:16; Deut 10:2-5, 8). The idea of a “commandment” is to draw attention to the authority of the one issuing the command, and so all Israel was to obey all the commandments of the covenant, both ethical and cultic commands. Moses introduced the engraved law and covenant as “testimonies, statutes and ordinances” (Deut 4:13-14, 44-45; 5:1), so the laws of the Decalogue are no different than the rest of the laws of the covenant and one will find that ceremonial laws are also considered to be “commandments” (Lev 27:34; Deut 1:3; 11:22; 19:9). While the form of the Ten Commandments lends itself to catechetical instruction or memory (Jer 7:9; Hos 4:2; Matt 19:17-22; Rom 13:9; cf. Lev 19:1-18; Deut 27:15-26), they far from dominate either OT or NT ethical lists or summaries. “The commandments of the Decalogue are rarely cited in the OT.”[ii] “In what respect exactly the ten commandments differed from the Book of the Covenant in terms of content is nowhere explicitly stated.”[iii] “Exodus 23 belongs to the Book of the Covenant, where the statutes and ordinances for the covenantal relationship are laid out, and these regulations can be considered as an explication of the Decalogue, which precedes them.”[iv]
There are no punishments—no legal recourses—stipulated within this document; however, there is a promise associated with the command to honor one’s parents. Most of the laws are couched as prohibitions. This collection of laws is a summary of the covenant the Lord made with Israel, “listing those areas of life where human conduct was intended to be shaped and enriched by adherence to the demands of living as a community of God’s people.”[v] “The focus is on protecting the health of the community, to which end the individual plays such an important role.”[vi]
When this list of commands is viewed superficially, the Decalogue is often considered to represent the minimum moral requirements to ensure that one’s life pleases God, but this is not to imply that obedience to the Ten Commandments will result in the salvation of one’s soul. “The giving of the law [the Ten Commandments] followed the salvation of Israel, and hence such obedience signified Israel’s grateful response to the redemption accomplished by the Lord.”[vii] Another view imagines that each commandment has a positive and negative duty that, when viewed in their totality, then encompasses every area of life. For example, not only should we not kill someone, we should also make effort to preserve human life. However, Jesus demonstrated the inadequacy of this view (Matt 10:34-29; 18:18-23; 22:35-40; cf. Isa 1:13-17; Mic 6:8). These two views often overlook three other features about the Ten Commandments: 1) they are a summary of the whole law that Israel was covenanted to keep, 2) the number and arrangement of those laws have symbolic meaning,[viii] and 3) the NT adds a new perspective about the law, and the Decalogue as a whole (2 Cor 3:6-4:6; Heb 7:11-12; 9:1-10; 12:18-24). See Moral Law and Noachide Law.
Individual commandments from the Decalogue are referenced positively in the gospels (Matt 5:21, 27; 19:18-19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Lk 18:20), by Paul (Rom 7:7-8; 13:9-10; Eph 6:1-3; 1 Tim 1:9-11), and by other NT writers (Jas 2:11), so, as with all other Scriptures, are profitable for the man of God (2 Tim 3:16-17). At the same time, Paul provides a fresh view of the Decalogue as a contrasting type of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6-18). “Paul has a certain view of the OT from the outset, as we can see in the very first reference to the ministry of the old covenant, where he already calls it a ‘ministry of death’.”[ix] Balla points out that Paul is not addressing the content of the law at this point, only the manner in which the two covenants were promulgated. However, Paul also emphasizes a liberty in the NT in contrast to the “veil” of the OT that obscured a clear vision of Jesus Christ. Certainly this would include the Spirit’s revelation that Christ is the topic of many OT narratives and laws. Paul’s repeated use of katargeo (“done away” and “abolished”) in his letter to the Corinthians is similar to doing away with the “law of commandments contained in ordinances” that kept Jew and Gentile apart (Eph 2:15-22). As Henry summarized this liberty under the gospel dispensation, there is “freedom from the yoke of ceremonial law, and from the servitude of corruption; liberty of access to God, and freedom of speech in prayer.”[x] See Abrogation.
“Therefore, from the perspective of the new covenant, the Decalogue is understood not as a summary of moral law but as a symbol of a pre-Christ relationship between God and His people and a type of the more glorious new covenant.”[xi]
“The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith.”[xii] “When I say that the Ten Commandments are finished, I mean as a covenant document, or as the tables of the covenant.”[xiii] “In other words there is a sense for Christians that the Ten Commandments do not apply to them.”[xiv]
The Ten Commandments are often proclaimed to be a summary of moral law as opposed to a summary of the Lord’s covenant with Israel. For example, “A summary of this moral law, including, in general principle, all the duties which grow out of our relations to God and to our fellow-men, is presented in the Ten Commandments, engraved by the finger of God on two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai.”[xv] “The Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God on tables of stone at Mount Sinai, are the Lord’s summary of moral law, his definition of loving behavior.”[xvi] As with any assertion, there may or may not be evidence to back it up. And so this view is not without its detractors, who except the Sabbath as a moral commandment. Weirsbe states, “There is no evidence in Scripture that God ever gave the original Sabbath command to the Gentiles, or that it was repeated for the church to obey. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the church epistles, but the Sabbath commandment is not repeated.”[xvii]Rordorff’s review of early Christian literature discovered that “whenever we come across the use of the decalogue within the Christian Church, the sabbath commandment is always missing.”[xviii] Augustine excepted the Sabbath Commandment: “Well, now, I should like to be told what there is in these ten commandments, except the observance of the Sabbath, which ought not to be kept by a Christian…” Come the second millennium and Aquinas softened this distinction to say the Fourth Commandment was only moral in that “some time” be devoted to the worship of God. This was the historic view prior to the Reformation, and it was shared in part by Luther and Calvin. Luther’s Small Catechism is most succinct in advising, on the basis of the Sabbath commandment, “We should so fear and love God as not to despise preaching and his Word, but deem it holy, and willingly hear and learn it.”[xix] In contradistinction, Luther also said “the [NT] Scripture, which teacheth that all the Mosaical ceremonies can be omitted after the Gospel is revealed, has abrogated the Sabbath.”[xx] Bauckham explains that “Luther defends the Christian Sunday as a civil or ecclesiastical institution” as opposed to a divine command.[xxi] In his Institutes, Calvin agrees that the external observance of the Sabbath is typological and so was abolished; however, he adds that for Christians it means 1) we should cease from our works and allow God to work within us, 2) there should be a stated day to hear the Law and perform religious rites, and 3) servants “should be indulged with a day or rest, and thus have some intermission from labour.[xxii] “Like Luther, Calvin stresses that the institution of the weekly Sunday is a matter of convenience and order only…”[xxiii]
The Ten Commandments are certainly a summary of the Mosaic covenant which, from the perspective of the new covenant, is comprised of both moral and ceremonial laws (Ex 20:2, 12; 34:28, 29; Deut 4:13; 5:2-4, 15; 2 Cor 3:6-11; Gal 3:16-19; 4:24-26). “Equally importantly, [in the Decalogue] there is no distinction between the cultic and the social/ethical; they are simply fused.”[xxiv] Of all the cultic observances peculiar to the Mosaic covenant, the Lord chose the weekly Sabbath to be the identifying sign to accompany the other commandments that make up the Decalogue. But there is no legitimate rationale to support the assertion that the Ten Commandments were intended to be a summary of God’s moral law for all nations. This includes the presumption that Christ’s summation of the Mosaic covenant (loving God and neighbor) is a compendium of the Decalogue. While the Ten Words are a convenient and concise list of mostly moral duties and it has served the church to inculcate moral instruction by it, the theological imprecision has led to confusion regarding the place of the Sabbath in Christian ethics. As such, the claim that the Decalogue is a summary of moral laws that by extension apply to all nations can only be true if all of the commandments are indeed moral laws. The burden of proof therefore is to demonstrate unequivocally that the Sabbath, as given to Israel, is a moral commandment, of the same ethical substance and character as the other nine. However, Shepard’s attempt to demonstrate this is quite inadequate and unconvincing.[xxv] “Certain expedients [were] contrived to bring natural law as close as possible to the Sabbath commandment, but by and large the Puritans abandoned as untenable the notion that the Sabbath law is wholly ‘natural.’”[xxvi] “Nor are the usual modern reflections on the Decalogue’s being universal in character, or ethically oriented, based on solid evidence.”[xxvii] “Hence it is of considerable importance that these commandments not be understood as eternally limited in scope or as ethical principles more important than any others that might be formulated.”[xxviii] “I repeat; the idea that the Ten Commandments constitute the ‘moral law of God’ is derived from the WCF, with absolutely no biblical proof.”[xxix] ”Cassuto observes that the sixth through eighth commandments are found in every civilized society yet are unusual here because of their absolute, unqualified form as abstract, eternal principles.”[xxx]
[i] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 398.
[ii] Pao, David W. and Schnabel Eckhard J., “Luke” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 351.
[iii] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 397-98.
[iv] Pao, David W. and Schnabel Eckhard J., “Luke” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 300.
[v] Clements, Ronald E. p. 288.
[vi] Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus, Interpretation Commentary, p. 221.
[vii] Schreiner, Thomas R. 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, p. 26. Emphasis in the original.
[viii] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 323-24. Explores the significance of the Sabbath as the fourth in order of the Ten Commandments as a redemptive feature.
[ix] Balla, Peter, “2 Corinthians” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 754-55.
[x] Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 6, p. 495. (2 Cor3:17)
[xi] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 56.
[xii] Ursinus, Zacharias. Commentary of the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard; reprint of 1852 ed.; p. 2.
[xiii] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p.98.
[xiv] Arand, Charles P. “Luther’s Radical Reading of the Sabbath Commandment” in Perspectives on the Sabbath, p. 220.
[xv] Hodge, A. A., p. 280.
[xvi] Chantry, Walter, Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 17.
[xvii] Weirsbe, Warren W., Bible Exposition Commentary, p. 392.
[xviii] Rordorf, Willy, Sunday, p.106.
[xix] Schaff, Phillip, The Creeds of Christendom, Luther’s Small Catechism, Vol. 3, p. 74-75.
[xx] Schaff, Phillip, The Creeds of Christendom, The Augsburg Confession, Vol. 3, p. 69.
[xxi] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 314.
[xxii] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, p.339.
[xxiii] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 316.
[xxiv] Watts, Rikk E., “Mark” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 167.
[xxv] Shepard, Thomas. Theses Sabbaticae. See my book review at http://wp.me/p4w327-83.
[xxvi] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 324.
[xxvii] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 398.
[xxviii] Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus, Interpretation Commentary, p. 222.
[xxix] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 145.
[xxx] Blomberg, Craig L., “Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 21.