Previous article in this series: December 1, 2013, p. 104.
And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
In previous articles in this series we examined three great principles of public corporate worship. The first was that public corporate worship is a covenantal assembly. The second was that it is a covenantal assembly carried out in a holy dialogue between God and His people. The third was that it is an assembly the dialogue of which is regulated by God Himself. After setting forth these principles we began to look at the various elements God commands be a part of this assembly and how these elements fit in the dialogue of worship. We took up the main element in which God speaks to His people, namely the reading and preaching of Scripture. We next examined one of the main elements that give our response, congregational singing.
Now, we embark upon a study of another aspect of the service in which God speaks to us, this time His rule over our lives in the covenant. This aspect of the service is the reading of the Law. The reading of the Law is not, strictly speaking, its own element. It is one part of a broader category, the reading of the Word of God. But it is good and profitable that part of that element of the reading of the Word be specifically the reading of the Law. This article and the next will explain why that is so, from the place of the Law in the life of the church throughout the New Testament age, and then from the place the reading of the Law has in the worship services of Reformed churches.
The Law and the New Testament
The Law of God is centrally and foundationally given to us in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20. There are other laws given in Holy Scripture, many given by Jesus Christ Himself. But centrally the Moral Law, the Ten Commandments, is the Law of God. The Ten Commandments are God’s revealed moral will for every single man, woman, and child upon this earth. Though this Law was written in the Old Testament, the Moral Law does not fall away at the end of the Old Testament. It continues to be the Law of God for all of us now and to the second coming of Christ.
That is evident from the commandments themselves, which transcend time and change. The First Commandment speaks of worshiping God alone. No change could ever make this command fall away. The Sixth Commandment speaks of murder. When in history would it ever be right to murder? These are laws that are not bound to a particular time or culture, but are broad moral principles for all peoples at all times.
In fact, the Ten Commandments were in effect before God gave them in stone at Mt. Sinai. God’s condemnation of the worship of idols is revealed not first at Mt. Sinai but at the very beginning of all things. The Bible makes it clear that it was wrong for Cain to kill his brother Abel long before the Sixth Commandment was written down. The gross sexual immorality of the men of Sodom (Genesis 19) was wrong long before God appeared to Israel at Sinai. The Bible condemns Lot’s wife for being covetous before the Tenth Commandment was given in stone.
The fact that the Ten Commandments are permanent is also proved from observing the way they were given by God in the book of Exodus. God spoke these commandments publicly to all in Exodus 20, something He did not do in the giving of the other laws at Mt. Sinai. In addition, later, in Exodus 31, God gave the Ten Commandments on tables of stone, and He wrote them with His own finger.: “And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” No other commandments were written that way. The writing in stone indicates that they are permanent, and that God had etched them in stone Himself indicates their enduring authority.
In addition, the Ten Commandments are permanent because they are complete. Nothing can be added or taken away from them as far as moral principles for life before the face of God are concerned. The Bible says that God wrote the Law on two tables, front side and back.: “And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.” This indicates there was no room left for anything to be added. The Ten Commandments are divided into two sections, corresponding to the fact that they were written on two tables. As Q/A 93 of the Heidelberg Catechism points out, the first table speaks to us of how we are to relate to God, the second how we are to relate to our neighbor for God’s sake. In other words, all relationships are governed by this Law. Nothing needs to be added.
The Moral Law is also complete in that its requirements penetrate into the depths of the human heart. Its requirements are essentially the requirements of love. The summary of the Law that Jesus gives in the New Testament and that we also read every Sunday morning shows this. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength and thy neighbor as thyself.” Its requirements are not merely external and outward, but also internal and spiritual. There can be no more totally-penetrating command than the law of love.
The Ten Commandments are for all time, then, even though there are other laws in the Old Testament that fall away in the New Testament. There were three types of laws that were given in the Old Testament. There were civil laws, ceremonial laws, and the Moral Law. The civil laws were the laws given for the governing of Israel as a nation. There were laws about how to wage war, what to do about someone who refused to pay his debt, etc. These laws were applications of the Moral Law to Israel as a society, so that Israel as nation could live in good order, justice, and holiness.
Although principles may be gained from these laws to help us apply the Moral Law to our life yet today, these laws themselves are no longer in effect. 1 The reason is because the church is no longer a state. In the Old Testament the church and state were one. Now in the New Testament the church is the kingdom of Christ, not the state. America is not God’s kingdom; the church is God’s kingdom. And the church is ruled directly by Jesus Christ and His own application of the Moral Law to the life of the church (especially in the Sermon on the Mount), and the apostles’ inspired understanding of the Moral Law’s application to the church found in the rest of the New Testament.2 This is why we do not read the civil laws as a separate aspect of our weekly worship.
The second type of law in the Old Testament is ceremonial law. Ceremonial laws were laws given to the Israelites concerning all the feasts and sacrifices they were commanded to offer. There were laws regarding ritual cleansings, laws governing the clothing of the priests, laws about what the priests ate, etc. Although spiritual principles may be gained from these laws as well, they are also no longer in effect. This is true because all of these laws pointed forward to Jesus Christ, whose life and death was the one true and great ceremony. For instance, the laws concerning the spotless sacrifices pointed ahead to Christ the perfect sacrifice, and the laws concerning the ritual cleansings pointed forward to the child of God washed from His sins in Christ’s blood.3 This is why we do not read the ceremonial laws as a separate aspect of our weekly worship.
The Law Useful for the Christian
Only the Moral Law remains for all time. Because it remains for all time, the Moral Law is useful for our life in the covenant of grace still today. The Ten Commandments are for the church and were given to the church, though they apply to all men in every age and every place.
Notice in Exodus 20 that God addresses the Law to His people. In the heading of the Law, given in verse 2, God says, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” God is addressing His people as the covenant people of God. When He says, “I am the Lord Thy God,” He is appealing to the covenant formula, using the phrase that is repeated all throughout the Bible to describe the covenant, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” God is wrapping His arms around His people with those words, as if to say, “I am your God, who delivered you out of the bondage of Egypt and took you to Myself. This law is for you. You alone have the spiritual capacity to understand it, to be convicted by it, to be driven to the Messiah by it, and to seek to obey it from the heart. This law represents My sovereignty over you as My people. I am sovereign over all people, and the law says that too, but I rule over you in a special way. You are my peculiar possession. I have bought you, redeemed you, and now I assert my loving rule over you.”
This means that the use of the Ten Commandments in the New Testament is not as a means for us to earn salvation. This is the gospel in. In Exodus 20 the gospel is given before the Law. There is always a danger that we look at the keeping of the Law as self-salvation, even as it is read in the service. There is a temptation to respond to the Law, “I do a pretty decent job of obeying the Law. After all, I am here in church, am I not? Other people are not. That’s why God will have me.” This is the natural bent of our thinking, but it is a false gospel. God demands perfect obedience to His Law from the heart. God is so Holy He cannot demand anything other than perfect obedience, and anything less than that obedience brings one under judgment and the curse. We cannot be redeemed by this Law.
Instead, the first use of God’s Law for us is as a means by which we see God’s perfect holiness. If one makes a law, that law always reveals the character of the law-giver. In the U.S. we have a law that says that abortion is legal. That reveals the character of those who make the laws of this nation (including the populace). They do not have a regard for human life from conception. So too, the Law of God reveals God’s character, and all of that Law cries out this about God’s character: God is Holy! The whole context surrounding the giving of the Law in Exodus 20 lets us know that this is true as well. When the Lord descends upon the mount, the accompanying effects were not that butterflies and roses and confetti shot out everywhere. Rather, there was lightning and thunder and the sound of a loud trumpet. The mountain smoked with fire. It was a frightening sight, and the people trembled (). God told Moses to hold the people back from the mount, for if they came too close, His holiness would break forth upon them and consume them ( ). The holiness of God was on display to point us to the fact that this Law encapsulates His holiness. He is perfectly pure, and in order to approach Him and be His people, we must be perfectly pure as well.
Thus the law is also a means by which God’s people see their sin and their need for Christ. The Law is a mirror in which the child of God sees his own depravity. He stands before the Law that requires perfect obedience, and he sees he cannot obey its demands. The Law is a mirror in which the child of God sees himself dirty and corrupt, which drives him to Jesus Christ for cleansing. The Law does not drive one to the Law for cleansing, but to Christ. If you look into a mirror at home and see that you have dirt on your face, you don’t use the mirror to try to clean yourself. The view you get of yourself in the mirror drives you to the water from the sink, to clean your face. So the Law reveals our sins and drives us to the rivers of Christ’s perfect sacrifice for sin for cleansing. The Christian needs that. Every week he needs that. Every week he must be brought to the realization of his own unworthiness and be driven to the cross. The Law is God’s gift to His children, so that they live in dependence upon Christ week by week.
But the Law is also the rule of gratitude for the child of God. It is the Law of perfect liberty. Even though the child of God sees His sin in the mirror of the Law, he must know also that that Law cannot curse Him anymore. He has been redeemed by Christ. The child of God must still see His sin and be driven to Christ, but he must not let the Law attempt to curse Him and damn him to hell. He is freed from the Law’s condemnation in order to begin to obey it in freedom. Whereas before, the child of God cursed the Law, because He is free in Christ it is his desire now to obey that Law. He now can say with David, “O how love I Thy law! it is my meditation all the day!”4 And he can say to it, “Teach me the way that I should go.”5 He sees in the Law that it is part of the covenant of grace. God did not redeem Israel so that they could live like Egypt. But he delivered them so that they could serve Him in the true freedom of holiness. That is why God redeems me in Christ and then calls me to obey His Law out of gratitude. I must. This is my part in the covenant, to love Him and serve Him and honor Him in gratitude and love.
And since the covenantal assembly is where the covenant is primarily declared and maintained by God, how appropriate that this Law that convicts and drives to Christ so that we may be free to live out our part in that covenant is spoken to us in that covenantal assembly week after week.
1 In technical terms, the Ten Commandments are the apodictic law for all time, and the civil laws are the case laws applying the apodictic law to that particular time and circumstance.
2 This points out the error of Christian Reconstructionism. Christian Reconstructionism teaches that all the civil laws that governed Old Testament Israel need eventually to be reinstated in America in some fashion. Then America will truly be Christian and we will establish Christ’s kingdom on earth. This is erroneous. The church is Christ’s kingdom, governed by the Moral Law in the hands of Christ and the apostles and enforced by the spiritual discipline of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
3 It is the error of dispensationalism to suppose that these ceremonial laws will come back in the nation of Israel at the end, and that the kingdom of God will be the nation of Israel restored to its Old Testament times.