Secondly, there are those who in general are known as Antinomians, who would lay all emphasis on justification in Christ. They are afraid that the preaching of the law may have the effect of inducing the Christian to seek his salvation in the way of fulfilling the law of God. The only effect of the preaching of the law as a rule of life, they say, is and must be that we become Pharisees, that once more we seek our salvation in the way of our own righteousness, the righteousness of good works, and that thus we deny the atoning blood and the perfect obedience of Christ. And seeing that it is quite impossible that we keep the law of God perfectly, it can never be a ground, or part of the ground, of our salvation. Christ fulfilled the whole law in our stead, and in Him alone we have a perfect righteousness and eternal life. Let us, therefore, not attempt to add to the work of Christ, who fulfilled the law, but trust in His perfect work alone.
What shall we say to this?
In the first place, I would reply by admitting every one of the arguments advanced. The Christian certainly stands in relation of freedom to the law. And he certainly has all his righteousness in Christ only, who redeemed him from the curse of the law.
Nevertheless, I would also answer that I cannot agree with the conclusion that is supposed to be deduced from these arguments, namely, that it is a mistake or unprofitable for the believer to be instructed in the law of God.
To be sure, the believer is not under the law, but under grace. He is free. His position is not at Mt. Sinai, the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, but on Mt. Zion, and in the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. He is in Christ. And in Christ he is a new creature. He certainly must stand in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made him free. This means, first of all, that he is free from the curse of the law, because Christ is become a curse for him. The law can never curse him anymore. Even if the Christian falls into sin, or discovers, as he does, that he cannot keep the law of God perfectly, it cannot curse him. If the law should begin to curse him, he takes it by faith to Calvary, always again to find redemption in the blood of Christ. Secondly, from this it also follows that the believer is free in the sense that the law can never be a way of salvation to him. He is saved. All the work necessary to clothe him with perfect righteousness, and to make him heir of eternal life, is perfectly finished. To this perfect work of Christ unto his salvation he need not, and cannot possibly add even a tittle or iota by his keeping of the law and by walking in all good works. Finally, he is also free in the, sense that in principle he has the law written in his heart, so that he does not need the law as a code of precepts to direct his external deportment. He is not under the law, but under grace.
From all this, however, it does not follow that he is free to trample the law of God under foot. Nor is it true that the law cannot be and is not a safe and necessary guide to direct his way according to the will of God. On the contrary, his freedom means that exactly as a redeemed Christian, who does not have to work for his salvation, who has eternal righteousness and life to begin with, he is in a position freely to walk according to the will of God from loving gratitude. His freedom means, in the second place, that he has been liberated from the law of sin and death, and that now it is his inmost desire to know the will of God and to keep His testimonies and His statutes for the whole of his life in the world. It is exactly because he is free that he exclaims with the psalmist: “O, how love I thy law; it is my meditation all the day.” And to this I would add, finally, that the Christian is still in the flesh, that he has but a small beginning of the new obedience, and that the motions of sin are still in his members. Well may he daily take the law for his companion, to instruct him, enlighten him, and warn him from the way of sin.
Never dare the law lord it over him: for he is free indeed. Never may the law curse him: for Christ has redeemed him from the curse of the law. Never can the law be to him a way to merit righteousness and life: he has it all in the Lord Jesus Christ. But as a loving companion and infallible guide the believer takes the law to his bosom, with the prayer in his heart: “Teach me the way that I should go.”
Thus the instruction of the law, sanctified to the believing heart, will ever have a three-fold effect, and bear a three-fold fruit upon the believing Christian. This three-fold effect of the law upon the Christian we must further treat when we discuss Lord’s Day 45. But briefly we must mention this effect even now. First of all, it will discover to the eyes of the Christian an ever deeper horror of sin in his old nature.
In the light of the law, as a teacher of sin, he ever gains a clearer and more profound knowledge of the nature of sin and of the corruption of his sinful flesh. And thus the law will lead him to daily and ever more hearty repentance. Secondly, through the instruction of the law he will come to a deeper and ever clearer knowledge of the preciousness of Christ, of his need of His atoning blood and of the forgiveness of sin. And to the cross of Christ he will flee for refuge. And finally, through the instruction of the law of his God he will increase in the knowledge of His will, in the desire to walk worthy of God, and in the earnest endeavor to put off the old man and to put on the new, to the glory of God his Redeemer.
Before we enter upon the discussion of the Ten Commandments, a word may be said about the significance of the introductory sentence by which the Lord made Himself known to His people from Mt. Sinai: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
By these words Jehovah introduces Himself to His people Israel. They are a self-revelation of God to His covenant people. The people were encamped at Mt. Sinai. The mountain was altogether on smoke. There were lightings and thunders and a thick cloud, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And from the mount, out of the darkness, the people heard a mighty voice of a trumpet. Whose voice was it? From the introductory sentence it became known that it was Jehovah, their God. Just as the radio speaker, invisible to his audience, introduces himself by announcing his name, or by having his name announced, so the Lord introduced Himself to His people by the words: “I am Jehovah thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The words, therefore, are a self-revelation of the living God, Jehovah, the God of the covenant, to His people Israel.
Secondly, in these words Jehovah reveals His peculiar covenant relation to His people Israel, to the church. He is Jehovah, their God. It is true: He is the God of heaven and earth, of all nations and all men. For He is their Creator and their Lord. But He is the God of His people in an altogether unique sense of the word. He is their covenant God. He stands revealed to them in the promise: “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people.” He owns them in His love, as His peculiar treasure. And thus they are His property. He will bless them in His favor, reveal Himself to them, take them to His bosom, receive them into His fellowship, and give them eternal life. And, on the other hand, they are His servants, called to love Him with all their heart and mind and soul and strength, and to show forth the praises of Him that called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. It is the covenant relation as it is referred to inff.: “And it shall be at that day, saith the Lord, that thou shalt call me Ishi; and shalt call me no more Baali . . . And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. And I will betroth thee unto me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving kindness and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord . . . And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God.”
Thirdly, and in close connection with the foregoing, the introductory words reveal God as the Redeemer of His people. He brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage with a mighty arm. The Lord that is speaking to them from the smoking and quaking mount is the same that became known to them in the wonders of salvation, accomplished in the land of their oppression. It is therefore the God of our salvation in Christ, Who redeemed and delivered us from the bondage of sin and death, to lead us into the Canaan of His everlasting rest, that is addressing us in the law of the ten words. His promise to us is that He will enrich us with all the blessings of salvation. And only thus, as our Redeemer and Deliverer from sin and death, does He approach us with His law, in order that it may be a rule for us in working out our salvation, and in order to exhort us to keep our part of the covenant, that is, to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, to put all our confidence in Him only, to forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.
The first commandment is evidently basic for all the rest.
We may perhaps compare the law of God to a beautiful, holy temple, with a hall, or vestibule, above the entrance to which we find the inscription, “I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” It is through that vestibule, and therefore, as God’s redeemed, covenant people, that we now enter into this holy temple of our God, This temple has tea apartments. Over the entrance of each of these apartments we find the inscription of each of the ten commandments. And if we would understand the beauty and the rich significance of the law as a guide for the life of the believer in the world, we certainly must not be satisfied with merely reading the inscription over the entrance of each apartment. But we must enter and contemplate the interior of every room. To abandon the figure for a moment, we must study every one of the commandments in the light of the whole of Scripture with relation to all of our life as believers in the midst of the world that lieth in darkness.
To this, however, must be added that the first commandment of the ten is fundamental with relation to the rest. Turning to the figure of the temple once more, the ten apartments of this temple of the law are not to be conceived as all of equal size and without mutual relation to one another. Rather must we imagine that in this first room into which we enter we find the entrances to all the other apartments of this temple. The first commandment is basic. Keep it, and you keep the entire law, for the simple reason that our relation to God is the fundamental relation of all our life.
Let us ask, first of all, what this commandment teaches us concerning God. The law, you understand, is not arbitrary, but is based upon the truth about God and His virtues. Hence, it is expedient and fruitful to attempt from each commandment to learn something about our God, and to discover the basic principle upon which it is founded.
That fundamental principle in the first commandment is evidently that God is one. He is God alone, and there is no God beside Him.
We must remember that this first commandment leaves room for but two alternatives: we either worship God, or we serve idols. We are inclined to imagine three possibilities. The one is that man serves the true God, worships and adores Him, puts all his confidence in Him, and consecrates himself and all things to Him. Such is evidently the demand of the first commandment. The second possibility is that man serves false gods, or idols. Perhaps to this class we relegate all the heathen nations, that worship the powers of nature, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, graven images, and live in the darkness of paganism. But perhaps we also imagine a third possibility, and that is that we serve no god at all. There is a large class of men that do not serve the true God, neither are idolaters, but are strictly godless. They serve no god at all. God, they imagine, leaves them alone; and so they leave God alone.
We may note, however, that this is a fundamental error, and is not in harmony with reality. This is evident from the first commandment. It leaves room for only two alternatives. We either worship God, or we serve other Gods. A third possibility, that man should be altogether without God, is inconceivable and impossible. For it the first commandment leaves no room. In deepest reality there are no atheists. This does not mean that sinful man cannot philosophize until he imagines that from his life he ruled out the last trace of any belief in a god. Surely, the fool saith in his heart, “There is no god.” But in this he only reveals the willful attempt to rid himself of God. And in this attempt he will never succeed. Although for a time he may suppress the consciousness which is indelibly written upon his heart that God is, in actual life every man serves his god. He who turns away from the living God surely puts his confidence in vanities and becomes an idolater. This may not be the worship of sun and moon and stars or four footed beasts and creeping things, of wood and stone. It may be the superstitious worship of fate. Or it may be the worship of and trust in money and possessions, in his own strength, or in man or humanity. But whatever his god may be, every man seeks some object, some being, some power, in whom he puts his trust, which he adores and worships. The man that turns away from the true God is necessarily an idolater.
Hence, the first commandment is antithetical. The positive significance of this commandment is, of course: Thou shalt serve the Lord thy God, and Him alone. Nevertheless, this is expressed in the negative way: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The implication is, naturally: if you do not serve other gods, you serve the true God; and if you refuse to serve the true God, and Him alone, you necessarily must serve idols. A third possibility there is not.
The reason for this is not difficult to discover. In the first place, it must be remembered that man originally was created after the image of God. In his very nature he was adapted to God. And on his consciousness it is indelibly inscribed that he needs God. It is true that the image of God was not only lost through sin, but that it was subverted into its very opposite. His knowledge of God was changed into the lie. His righteousness was changed into iniquity. And His holiness became impurity in all his inclinations and desires. But sin did not change his being. He still needs a god, both objectively and subjectively. Without a god he cannot be. And when he rejects the true God. he will seek after some other object of worship and adoration. Secondly, this also implies that man is a servant. In the covenant relation he was God’s friend-servant. Also this was radically subverted by sin, so that he refuses to serve the true God,
But essentially he is still a servant. The sinner is a slave of sin. In sinful imagination he may exalt himself as God; but the fact remains that his being a servant, and no god, is indelibly impressed upon his consciousness. And by virtue of his very nature he will seek some god to serve, and in whom he can put his trust, and upon whom he may rely. Besides, in the third place, all things proclaim to him that he is dependent. He has no existence in himself. For the very origin of his being he is dependent. He did not create the world. Nor does he sustain it. He does not bring the rain and the sunshine, the fruit of the trees and the herb of the field. On literally all things, over which he has no control, man is dependent. Dependent he is on the very air which he breathes, on the water he drinks, on the food he eats. Everything proclaims his dependence. All things loudly preach to him that there is a power outside of him. And therefore he seeks a god on whom he can rely, and in whom he can trust. Finally, we must not forget that he lives in a world upon which God has placed the curse, and that testifies to him that all things are vanity. God put the curse of death upon the world in which man lives. In that world the very powers over which man has no control turn themselves against the sinner. In fire and water, in the wild beasts of the field, in the destructive powers of nature, in sickness and death and famine and pestilence, things turn against man. And when he turns himself away from the true God, he even seeks to pacify and overcome this evil power that turns against him for destruction. Man that originally was made after the image of God, man that is and remains a servant in his very nature, man that is dependent on everything round about him and who stands in a cursed domain, when he turns away from the true God, must of necessity serve some god in whom he may trust. He becomes inevitably an idolater.
The practical implications of this are very important. On the surface we may probably imagine that this negative form of the commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” does not apply to us. As long as we have an eye only for that coarser form of idolatry found among the nations of heathendom, bowing themselves before idols of gold and silver, of wood and stone, worshipping the powers of nature, the beasts of the field and creeping things, we may say that we are no idolaters. The first commandment in its negative form has lost its significance for us. Its positive implication may perhaps be still of value. It may serve to remind us that we must always and with all our heart and mind and soul and strength serve the living God. But idolaters, servers of other gods, we surely are not. About this, however, we will change our mind as soon as we understand that we always serve some god. Hence, in as far as we are not delivered from sin, from the inclination of our sinful nature, we are exactly inclined to idolatry; that is, we are inclined to rule out the true God and to place something next to Him in which we trust and on which we rely. Nor is it difficult to discover this tendency to idolatry in our practical life as believers in the world. How often in prosperity do we not place our own strength and ingenuity, conditions and circumstances, next to the living God, or instead of Him. Or, how frequently in distress or difficulty, in trouble or adversity, in sickness and suffering, do we fix our eye on men, on things, on means, next to the Lord of life and death. All this, according to the Catechism, is idolatry. Next to the Lord there is nothing. He is God, and God alone. Beside Him there is no Savior. All things and every creature are but means in His hand. And therefore, to place our trust in things or creatures is to rob the living God of His glory and is to serve idols.
We may notice too that emphatically the first commandment reveals God to us as a personal being. He is a being with intellect and will. He confronts us not as a vague, impersonal power, but as a person, that speaks to you, that reveals His will to you, that demands that you shall love Him. And in relation to Him you stand as a rational and moral being, whose Word you hear, whose will you are obliged to obey, to whom you must devote yourselves with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. He is a God whom you may know, to whom you may speak, to whom you may make your needs known, before whom you may pour out your hearts, in whom you may trust, and with whom you may have fellowship. He speaks of thou and me: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” He is, therefore, not a vague, impersonal power, such as the wind, or the power of electricity. Nor should you ever speak of Him as “a kind providence,” or in similar terms. Neither should we confuse or identify Him with the world, as Pantheism does, and say that God is all, and the world is God. He is an ego, a person, a distinct being. He is the Lord your God.
But the basic principle of the first commandment, in distinction from all the others, is that it reveals to us that God is one, and that He is God alone. There is no god beside Him. And this means, in the first place, that God is a simple being: He is not composed of parts. You cannot divide Him. All His virtues are essentially one in Him. In fact, He is His virtues. God is infinite in virtues and perfections, such as power and wisdom, righteousness and mercy, justice and grace, love and truth. But all these perfections are in God essentially the same. You cannot present them as being in conflict one with another. You dare not say, for instance, that God is just, but that He is also merciful. On the contrary, you should say that God’s mercy is always a just mercy, and His justice is ever a merciful justice. You may not say that God is filled with wrath against the wicked, but that He is also a God of love. You should say: God is love: therefore, He is filled with holy wrath against all the workers of iniquity. Nor is it possible to divide and separate the virtues of God. If you should argue thus: “I like a God of love and mercy, but I must have nothing of a God that is righteous and just, that damns sinners into everlasting perdition,” you do not love God at all. You make your own god and worship an idol. God is one. His love is also His wrath. His grace is also His righteousness. His mercy is inseparable from His justice.
But that God is one also signifies that He is God alone. There is no God beside Him. God does not belong to a class or a category of beings. There are no gods. God is not a god; He is God. We say that a rose is a flower. There are many flowers, and the rose is one of them. We say that Mr. Jones is a man. There are many men, and Mr. Jones is one of them. But you cannot say: the Lord is a god; there are many gods, and Jehovah is one of them. This is the implication of the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This commandment cannot mean that there are indeed other gods, but that you shall not offer them worship or put your confidence in them. It does not even mean that among all gods the Lord is supreme, that He is the highest above all gods. Such indeed was and still is the philosophy of the heathen, whether cultured or uncivilized. They say indeed: “We all have our gods. You have your god, and so have we. And we prefer our own.” This is not the language of Scripture. Nor will the believing Christian ever speak thus. The believer is intolerant. He claims: “’God is GOD. He is God alone. There is nothing beside, above, or next to Him, or even under Him, that can be called or may be worshipped as God. The idol is nothing. It is a figment of man’s own evil imagination.” Such is the implication of the first commandment.