Ronald H. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church, Houston, Texas.
In many ways the tenth commandment stands apart from all the others. Its unique importance is demonstrated, for example, by the statement of Paul inRomans 7:7: “For I had not known sin except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” In I Timothy 6:10 he again sets it apart from the all others and shows its importance by telling us that the love of money, covetousness, the sin, forbidden in the tenth commandment, is the root sin.
This distinctive character of the tenth commandment is evident in its demand. All the other commandments, though they have implications for our inward life, are directed primarily at our outward life, our speech and actions. In forbidding covetousness (also called concupiscence or lust in Scripture) the tenth commandment deals with a sin that by its very nature is a matter of our inward life and heart. By directing its attention solely to our in ward life, the tenth commandment reminds us of something that is only implied in the other commandments: that obedience to God is fundamentally a matter of the heart; or in other words, that mere outward conformity to the law of God does not in itself constitute obedience.
This is critical to understanding the tenth commandment and to seeing the particular aspect of God’s glory in which the tenth commandment is grounded. It, like all the others, is not arbitrary, but a revelation of the glory of God Himself, and an application of that glory to our life. Like all the others it teaches us to be holy as God is holy.
In looking for that principle, the first thing we must see is that the tenth commandment does not merely forbid our lusting after, or wanting things we do not have. That, in itself, is not even necessarily wrong. The faculty of the soul to want certain things is in-created by God and is not in itself bad, as is clear from those passages of Scripture which use such words as “lust” or “covet” in a good sense (Deut. 12:15-21, I Cor. 12:31). What the tenth commandment forbids is unlawful desiring, and unlawful desiring is wanting anything apart from God, or against God. Particularly that involves wanting what God has not given or will not give. This is the reason the tenth commandment speaks of the things that God has given to our neighbor and not to us. It is not wrong to desire a wife, unless, of course, God has made it clear that we must be eunuchs for the kingdom’s sake, but He has forbidden us to want the neighbor’s wife, likewise his house and his possessions.
Here the tenth commandment is very closely related to the first. In Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 Paul even identifies covetousness as idolatry. Obviously, loving or desiring anything apart from God is only a species of idolatry. In fact, the only real difference between the two commandments is that matter of direction, that the first is directed to our outward life or worship and confession, the tenth to our inward life. Along with that, there is also the obvious fact that the tenth commandment relates especially to our every-day life in the world and our attitude toward the things of the world.
Because covetousness is principally the same as idolatry, James calls it adultery in James 4:1-4 of his Epistle. Just as idolatry is spiritual adultery (Hosea 1:2) so also is covetousness. It is a “departing from the Lord.” Along the same lines, the man in the parable of the rich fool is a fool in his covetousness, because in everything he says and does regarding his possessions he takes no account of God, and therefore says in his heart what the fool always says, that there is no God (Luke 12:13-21, Ps. 14:1).
All this helps us get at the basic principle of the tenth commandment. Inasmuch as it is essentially the same as the first, so, too, its principle is really the same: the important Biblical truth that God is ONE. In the tenth commandment, therefore, the law of God makes a full circle, beginning and ending with the same truth, the most basic and important truth of all God’s self-revelation.
Nevertheless, the tenth commandment is grounded in a slightly different aspect of God’s oneness. The first commandment, if we remember, was based on the truth that God is the one only true God, and that beside Him there is no other. The tenth is grounded in God’s simplicity or perfection, another aspect of His oneness.
Remember now that the tenth commandment requires that our whole life, including the inward life of our thoughts, desires, and motives be in obedience to God’s law. In requiring this, the commandment requires of us perfection. Our obedience must be whole and entire, lacking nothing, that is, perfect. That this is the Biblical meaning of perfection is clear fromJames 1:4 where James explains the word “perfect” with the phrase “entire and lacking nothing.” Likewise,Leviticus 22:21ff describes a perfect sacrifice as one without blemish, lack, or imperfection. And it is in harmony with this idea that the Heidelberg Catechism explains the tenth commandment as requiring that “even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments never arise in our hearts, but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness” (XLIV, 113).
That this demand for perfection is indeed the requirement of the tenth commandment is nowhere so clear as in Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler. This man claimed to have kept all the commandments of God from his youth and since Jesus himself does not question his outward conformity to the law, there is no reason for us to doubt this man’s words. Nevertheless, Jesus shows that he was still not obedient, by pointing out his covetousness. Jesus told him to sell all he had, not because it is always necessary to have nothing in order to follow Jesus, but because this man’s possessions were his first love. He was covetousness as he showed when he left Jesus for his possessions: “he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:16-22). That is indeed a significant revelation of where he stood in relation to God as far as the desires of his heart were concerned. Even more significant for us, however, is the fact that Jesus says to him by way of getting at his covetousness, “If thou wilt be perfect. . . .” That is the great demand of the tenth commandment.
We understand, then, that the tenth commandment does not just require perfection, but that we be perfect as God Himself is perfect, and because He is perfect (cf. Deut. 18:13, Matt. 5:48). That God is perfect means that His glory is complete and entire, lacking nothing. There is no contradiction or disharmony, no disunity in God, and He is not divided against Himself in any way. In dogmatics this is usually called the simplicity of God, as we read in the Belgic Confession; “we all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God” (Art. I). The word “simple” has in this connection its older meaning of uncomplicated, pure, and unmixed, and refers to the same thing that Scripture calls God’s perfection. Perhaps the most profound statement of God’s simplicity in all of Scripture, but one which at the same gets the idea of it across to US most powerfully, is found in I John 1:5; “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
That God’s simplicity is an aspect of His oneness is clear with a little thought. It refers to His oneness, not as the only God, but as He is one in and of Himself, in all His words and works (Deut. 32:4, II Sam. 22:31). It is also a very important truth.
It is not too much to say that the truth of God’s simplicity is the underlying foundation of all consistency in doctrine and the development of the truth. For example, it is this attribute of God which is the most powerful argument against the idea of God’s love for all men, particularly against the idea that He reveals in the gospel such a love for all men as desires their salvation, while at the same time not providing in His sovereign power all that is necessary for their salvation, thus showing an unwillingness to have all saved. God’s simplicity means there is no such contradiction in Him. He cannot both love and hate the wicked and desire their salvation while at the same not willing their salvation in His decree of election. He is perfect!
As important as that truth is for doctrine and dogmatics, it is even more important for the comfort of God’s people. Deuteronomy 32:4 tells us that because His work is perfect, He is the Rock of His people, the Rock of their salvation (Deut. 32:15), the. Rock that begat them (Deut. 32:18), and the Rock that first delivered them into the hands of their enemies and then delivered them (Deut. 32:30-43). II Samuel 22:31 adds its own testimony to this, by reminding God’s people that He is a buckler to all that trust in Him because His way is perfect.
As much then as we love this truth concerning God (and we love or ought to love it very much in our Protestant Reformed Churches, for it is not only our comfort as believers, but an integral part of our history), by so much will we love the tenth commandment and its demands as the way in which we can with all our heart show our appreciation for what God has revealed of His perfection, and confess our love and faith in His perfection in a living and practical way. So once again we see that true obedience to God’s law, is not mere conformity to a code of ethics, not a matter finally of “do and don’t,” but of whole-hearted conformity to God’s own glory and perfection. The “must” of God’s law can never be for His people anything but the “must” of their own love for Him who called them out of darkness into His own light.
Here that “must” is the requirement that our life be without contradiction in the service of God, that our heart and life be one and undivided in obedience to Him, and that there be no contradiction between the outward conduct of our life, and the motives and desires of our hearts. Far be it from us that we serve Him with hands and lips while our hearts are far from Him, our desires toward the world and the things of the world, and we be full of covetousness. We must be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.