One of the first and most recurring things my kids have learned—at Sunday school, in Christian school, and around the dinner table—has been the Ten Commandments. In fact, my middle three children love to sing (incessantly!) the Ten Commandments song they learned for last year’s choir concert. As a Presbyterian pastor—but more so, as a Christian—I consider it one of my most obvious responsibilities that I teach my kids the joyful responsibility of knowing and obeying the Ten Commandments.
Could it be that I, along with countless other Christian parents and pastors, am making a mistake?
In his new book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, Andy Stanley insists, “The Ten Commandments have no authority over you. None. To be clear: Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments” (136). Mike Kruger argues forcefully (and charitably) against this bold thesis. It will surprise no one to learn—especially given my new book—that when it comes to the role of the Ten Commandments specifically, and the Old Testament more broadly, I agree wholeheartedly with Kruger and disagree strongly with Stanley.
Against the Entire History of the Church
The church has historically put the Ten Commandments at the center of its teaching ministry, especially for children and new believers. For centuries, catechetical instruction was based on three things: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. In other words, for virtually all of church history, when people asked, “How do we do discipleship? How do we teach our kids about the Bible? What do new Christians need to know about Christianity?” their answers always included an emphasis on the Ten Commandments.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, 11 of the 52 Lord’s Days focus on the Ten Commandments. The same is true in 42 of the 107 questions in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, in more than half of the Lutheran Larger Catechism, and in 120 out of 750 pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Across various traditions, there has been a historic emphasis on the Ten Commandments.
Unique Place in the Old Testament
The Ten Commandments are not simply a part of the Mosaic covenant; they occupy a unique and central role in the law handed down on Sinai. We see this right from the prologue in Exodus 20. The Lord is no longer telling Moses to go down and relay a message to the people. That’s how the Lord operated in chapter 19, but now in chapter 20 God is speaking “all these words” (v. 1) directly to the Israelites. That’s why, at the end of the Ten Commandments, the people cry out to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:19). They were too terrified to have God speak to them without a mediator, which says something about the stunning display of God’s power in chapters 19 and 20 and underlines the importance of the Decalogue.
Moreover, the language in verse 2 is a deliberate echo of God’s call to Abraham. Look at the similarities:
“I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans.” (Gen. 15:7)
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 20:2)
At these great epochal moments in redemptive history—first with Abraham, and now with Moses and the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai—God says, in effect, “I am the Lord who brought you out of this strange land to be your God and to give you this special word.”
Some people—including a number of good Old Testament scholars—will say, “Well, look, there are all sorts of commandments. The Ten Commandments are succinct, and they’ve played an important role in the history of the church, but they’re simply the introduction to the Mosaic law. There are hundreds of statutes in the Pentateuch, and the Bible never says these ten are in a class all by themselves.”
While it’s true that the Bible doesn’t say to print the Ten Commandments in boldface, we shouldn’t undersell their special stature in ancient Israel. They came from God as he spoke to the people face-to-face (Deut. 5:1–5), and they came from Mount Sinai amid fire, cloud, thick darkness, and a loud voice (Deut. 5:22–27). Exodus 20 marks a literal and spiritual high point in the life of Israel. It’s no wonder the tablets of the law, along with the manna and Aaron’s staff, were placed inside the ark of the covenant (Heb. 9:4).
There will be many more laws in the Old Testament after Exodus 20. But these first ten are foundational for the rest. The Ten Commandments are like the constitution for Israel, and what follows are the regulatory statutes. The giving of the law changes sharply from chapter 20 to chapters 21 and 22. The Ten Commandments are clear, definite, absolute standards of right and wrong. Once you get to chapter 21, we shift to application. You can see the distinctive language leading off each paragraph in chapters 21 and 22: words such as “when,” “whoever,” and “if.” This is the case law meant to apply the constitutional provisions carved in stone on Mount Sinai.
In other words, from the outset of Israel’s formal existence as a nation, the Ten Commandments had a special place in establishing the rules for their life together.
Part of the New Jesus Unleashed for the World
Contrary to Stanley’s claim above, the Ten Commandments are not just important in the Old Testament; they are also central to the ethics of the New Testament.
Think of Mark 10:17, for example. This is where the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments.” Then he lists the second table of the law, the commandments that relate to our neighbors: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (v. 19). Jesus isn’t laying out a path for earning eternal life. We know from the rest of the story that Jesus is setting the young man up for a fall, because the one command he obviously hasn’t obeyed is the one command Jesus skips—do not covet (vv. 20–22). But it is noteworthy that when Jesus has to give a convenient summary of our neighborly duties, he goes straight to the Ten Commandments.
We see something similar in Romans 13. When the apostle Paul wants to give a summary of what it means to be a Christian living in obedience to God, he looks to the Ten Commandments:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Rom. 13:8–9)
Paul says, much like Jesus did, that the Ten Commandments are the way for God’s people to love one another. When we love, we fulfill the commandments, and when we obey the commandments, we are fulfilling the law of love.
Paul does something similar in 1 Timothy 1. After establishing that the law is good if one uses it lawfully (v. 8), Paul proceeds in verses 9 and 10 to rattle through the second table of the law, referring to the wicked “who strike their fathers and mothers” (a violation of the fifth commandment), and “murderers” (a violation of the sixth commandment), and the sexually immoral and men who practice homosexuality (violations of the seventh commandment), and “enslavers” (a violation of the eighth commandment), and liars and perjurers (violations of the ninth commandment). Again, when Paul needs a recognizable way to summarize ethical instruction for the people of God, he goes back to the Ten Commandments.
By Jewish tradition, there are 613 laws in the Pentateuch. They all matter, because they all teach us something about love for God and neighbor. But the 613 can be summarized by the Ten Commandments, which can in turn be summarized by two: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt. 22:37–40). To be sure, Jesus certainly transforms the Ten Commandments, but he never meant to abolish them (Matt. 5:17).
The Ten Commandments have been central to God’s people in the Old Testament, central to God’s people in the New Testament, central to God’s people throughout church history, and they should be central for us as well.
Portions of this blog post have been adapted from The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them.