March 3, 1996


After a pause, we return to our evening series on the ethics of the Bible. We have had two studies in this series, so far. In the first we considered the reasons why the study of ethics was so important and something of what we mean by the term “ethics.” In the second we began the consideration of the Bible’s foundations for ethics. In what form does the Bible give us ethical instruction? We began with the law of God. I argued that it remains the authority for our behavior today as it was in the days of Moses. We considered the arguments that have been made, even in the Reformed tradition, to weaken, to one degree or another, the Law’s authority over the Christian’s life in the new epoch. In particular we considered the views of John Calvin on the difference between the OT and the NT and argued that even the great Reformer had not seen as clearly as he should how much the two epochs — that before Christ and that after — were the same, and especially in regard to the role played by the law — first in working conviction of sin and the need for a Savior, and then by directing the steps of the righteous in Christ in the ways of holiness.

When once the fiery law of God
Has chas’d us to the gospel road;
Then back unto the holy law
Most kindly gospel grace will draw.

The Application of the Law

Now, there are other foundations of our ethics and we will consider them in due time (the law of love; the example of Christ; the guidance of the Holy Spirit; answers to prayer; and the direction of a sanctified conscience — all of these are in harmony and will speak, when they speak rightly, with one voice, but all of them serve, in particular ways, as guides and instructors for us). But first, we need to develop the role of the law of God in our ethics. How does the law guide us? How are we to seek guidance and direction from it?

The problem is created by the fact that the law does not speak to all ethical questions nor does it provide direct instruction to us at many points in our lives where questions of right and wrong are raised.

It does of course speak at length regarding many things and speaks with crystal clarity about many things. But about many other issues the instruction is not so direct. We are prepared for this already in the law itself as given by Moses.

1. The ten commandments are the general principles of right
and wrong. (The treaty form confirms what was clear
anyway.) But, it is clear that the ten commandments are
to be understood not merely as ten specific prohibitions
and requirements, but as ten titles or headings for entire areas of Christian duty and godliness. And as a
unit, they serve as a summary, or an epitome of the entire law of God. Everything else is an elaboration of
these ten commandments or an application of them. That
is why these ten commandments were referred to as “the words of the covenant;” they are the covenant in sum, at least the covenant insofar as it is a rule of behavior.

In connection with this fact, several principles of
principles of interpretation are very important. These all derive from the way in which the law is restated, applied, and explained in the Bible.

I want tonight to consider these general principles before we consider next Lord’s Day evening, God willing, the practice of casuistry, the application of God’s law to the thousand and one specific questions of right and wrong we must answer today that are not directly addressed in the law. The law speaks of adultery but what about contraception? The law speaks of interest and investment, but what about cattle futures? The law speaks about the obligation of children to parents, but what of arranged marriages to non-Christian spouses, as often happens in some countries still today. The law requires the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, but what about television on Sunday or eating out? And on and on. We will get to the principles of biblical casuistry next week, as I said, but tonight I want to set out still more fundamental principles concerning the interpretation and application of the law of God.

1. First, The commandments, most of which are in the negative form, “You shall not…” also require the positive duty.

For example, the third commandment forbids us to use God’s name in vain. But as we know from many other passages in the law and the rest of the Bible, to refrain from the abuse of God’s name in our speech is hardly all that is required in the third commandment. It is not the case that so long as we do not use “God” or “Christ” as interjections, or swear falsely using those names, that we have thus kept the commandments.

In Deut. 28:58ff. we read “If you do not revere this glorious and awful name, the Lord will destroy you…” So revering God’s name and not taking it in vain are both required in the law.

So too with the other commandments. We are prohibited from murdering another human being, but not merely that. We are required by that same command to care for, to preserve, and to love the life of our neighbor. We are forbidden to commit adultery, but by that same commandment we are required to practice chastity in all our relationships. And so on. The negative includes the positive and vice versa.

2. A second rule of interpretation is that in the ten commandments, the prohibition of the greater sins includes all lesser sins of the same class.

The commandments speak specifically of the more extreme forms of certain types of sins: murder, adultery, lying on the witness stand, stealing, worshipping idols, etc. The fact that we are prohibited from murdering a man does not mean, however, that we can beat him within an inch of his life, so long as he survives. The fact that we are forbidden to steal his property does not mean we can burn his house down or dump our garbage in his backyard. Jesus, of course, made a specific point of teaching this in the sermon on the mount (you violate the 6th commandment not only by murder but by being angry or cruel to another; you violate the 7th not only by sleeping with your neighbor’s spouse, but as well by the lustful look), but the elaboration of the ten commandments in the OT law also made this clear.

3. A third rule of interpretation is that the prohibition of the greater sin in the ten commandments includes within it all occasions, and factors, and circumstances that lie under our control that contribute to or foster the commission of those sins.

We are not only forbidden to commit adultery, we are forbidden to go near the door of the harlot’s house (Prov. 5:8). We are not only forbidden to take God’s name in vain, we are commanded not to enter into oaths or to swear by God’s name without careful thought and calculation, lest we be untrue to our word and break the law.

4. A fourth rule of interpretation of the ten commandments, arising out of their elaboration and application in the Bible, is that each prohibition implies the prohibition of all acts of agreement with or being accessory to such sins.

David did not murder Uriah with his own hand, but God considered him a murderer, because he had had his general Joab commit the crime. Eli did not pervert the worship of Israel, his sons Hophni and Phineas did, but Eli was charged with the crime because as their father he did not restrain them.

To put these four rules of interpretation together we might say, the law of God, because it is God’s law, makes a total demand upon us; we have not kept it, we have not obeyed it, unless we have kept it not merely with our hand but with our heart, not merely outwardly but with a pure intention to do justice to God’s holiness in our attitudes and in our lives. Or, in other words, in order to keep the law of God aright, we must respect from our hearts and attitudes outward, the principle of divine holiness that is enshrined in any particular commandment. That will be very important when we come to biblical casuistry. The law of God reflects God’s own character and nature: be holy for I am holy. We must desire that holiness ourselves, all of it and in every way.

This was, of course, the great misconception of the Jews in the Lord’s day. They interpreted the laws as meaning nothing more than what they said — though some rabbis taught better, the general attitude is just what Jesus describes in the Gospels. Thus they worked out elaborate instructions for that particular obedience (keeping the Sabbath holy, etc.) but lost sight of the deeper intention and reach of the law into the heart, the attitude, the longings. “You tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but neglect the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).

Only with such a superficial view of the law could the rich young ruler have claimed to have kept all the commandments from his youth. The rabbis so firmly believed in the ability of men to keep the commandments perfectly that they spoke in all seriousness of people who had kept the whole law from A to Z.

Here is the point of contention between Jesus and the Jews. By trivializing the law they had trivialized sin, made it simply the individual transgression of a specific rule and not what it truly is, the corruption of the heart and the direction of the mind that spoils all our behavior in one way or another and at every level. Sin was viewed by those Jews of Jesus’ day, and by many in the Christian church since, in isolation, as a specific act, and not as rebellion against God from the inside out. Sins were more important that Sin.

They did not make very much at all of God’s looking upon the heart. They did not see how deeply the commandments reached within them. It was when Paul realized this (the 10th commandment) that he first came near to the gospel. (“Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came…”)

2. Another fundamental perspective on the law that is everywhere taught in the Scripture and in the law itself, especially in the introduction to the ten commandments in both Exod. 20 and Deut. 5, is that the spirit in which they are to be embraced and understood and kept, the attitude toward the law, the understanding of the place and purpose of the law, the theology of the law, if you will, is as critical to true obedience as an understanding of the specific commandments themselves.

Exod. 20:1-2 read: “And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

Our catechism asks the question: “What does the preface to the ten commandments teach us?” And the answer is this:

The preface to the ten commandments teaches us that because God is the Lord and our God and redeemer, therefore, we are bound to keep all his commandments.

That is, the law finds its place in the Christian life as an answer to, a response to the true knowledge of God and the experience of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. In other words, no one can keep the law, who does look behind it in reverence and in love and gratitude to the lawgiver and who does not intend in that obedience to love and worship God.

Now as you may know, over the last 30 years or so it has been more and more clearly seen that the form, the literary vehicle used in the covenant material of Exodus and Deuteronomy is that of the ANE treaties. This ancient literature in stone, dug up by archaeology, has wonderfully confirmed what careful students of the Bible had always known. That the opening statement, the preface to the ten commandments set those laws in a special context that was terribly important, essential for a proper understanding of those laws.

1. Many of those treaties and those that bear the closest resemblance to the material of Exodus and Deuteronomy were treaties of sovereignty. They were not mutual agreements between equals, but arrangements imposed on a weaker party by a stronger king or nation. So here, there is no suggestion that Israel negotiated this deal with God or that she is free to alter the terms of her relationship with God. The Great King has spoken. “I am the Lord your God.”

One of the ancient treaties begins: “These are the words of the Sun Mursilis, the Great King, the King of the Hatti land, the valiant, the favorite of the storm god…” (“These are the words,” by the way, is exactly the way Deuteronomy begins. Exod. 20:1 is very similar but not identical.)

You see, true obedience to the law begins here, with the recognition of the law giver, with reverence and fear for him. The law addresses us with divine authority, the voice of the Lord God is in it. The man who disregards it or treats it lightly offends against the majesty of this High God. No wonder so often, in OT and NT, we have statements such as this:

“If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law…and do not revere this glorious and awesome name — the Lord your God — the Lord will be pleased to ruin and destroy you.” (Deut. 28:58).

This must be a fundamental perspective in any true obedience. Reverence and fear of God as our God, the living God, whose voice is heard in the commandments. What better way of describing not only our culture, but so much of the church today, but that “there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

2. The second feature of the ancient treaties, after the identification of the Great King, was what the scholars call the “historical prologue.”

In the treaties the historical prologue would consist of a brief summary of past relations, particularly stressing the good deeds done by the great king for his client king. The purpose of this prologue was to answer the question: why should we obey the stipulations of this treaty.

In Exodus the prologue is very short: “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” In Deuteronomy it is much longer, most of the first four chapters, a review of all God had done in bringing Israel to the edge of the promised land.

But it answers, in both long and short forms, in the language and history appropriate to that time in the history of salvation, the question: why keep these commandments, especially when the Lord asks as much of us as he does. And the answer is clear: we ought to obey for love’s sake, for gratitude’s sake, in view of God’s great mercy and wonderful salvation. We were slaves and God has set us free!

The law and obedience cannot make us Christians — any more than it made those people Israelites, the people of God — God’s election and grace and redemption made them that. The law comes after to show us how to express our gratitude in return. So Paul: “I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to present your bodies holy to God…”

To most people the law is a burden, a list of do’s and don’ts that cuts across our desires and spoils our fun. But not so the Christian. The law is wonderful because it tells him what he most wants to know, how to please the one he wants most to please in all the world, because he loves him so! (Just like the lover who wants to find the very best gift, that gift she would most delight in, to show his beloved how deep is his love for her.)

The Christian knows the law is high, difficult to keep, but that difficulty is to him like the high price of the diamond he buys to place on her finger. He only wishes he had the wherewithal to buy her more! Some think that Christians think they are better than anyone else or that they would never be welcome in the Christian church because they don’t measure up to the standard. NO! No true, right thinking Christian would ever think that! We see the law for what it is, a transcript of God’s own holiness, high above us. We love that law because we love God. We aspire to keep it because we love God. We have hopes of keeping it, more and more as we walk with Christ, because he has promised to help us. But we begin with the knowledge that we are terrible sinners and that God rescued us primarily from ourselves. That is why we want to keep his commandments. Because we know ourselves to be, all of us, the idolaters, the misusers of God’s name, the murderers, the adulterers, the thieves, and the liars and the hypocrites the law in its height and depths reveals us to be.

Here is a way to test yourself and the perspective you bring to the law of God as a rule of your life. Do you wish the law to be changed in any way? Would you have certain parts of it altered so that it did not require certain things of you; or, do you only wish instead that you be changed and your life brought more completely into conformity to God’s law? The latter is the spirit of true Christian obedience and when that spirit is brought to the law, you are much more likely to find in that law the true direction you seek for your life, whatever question of ethics you may be asking.

The hymn writer caught the true spirit of our looking to the law for guidance in how we might live and love the Lord:

“Take his easy yoke and wear it, love will make obedience sweet.”

Next week, applying the law to the questions and issues of life.