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).