How to Use the Ten Commandments


I just read through the Westminster Standards; The Confession of Faith, Larger, and Shorter Catechism.  I try to read it through once a year. My conclusion at the end of this reading is that the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) is a sorely neglected document and needs to be studied more, especially by ministers.  Like all catechisms the WLC works through the ten commandments in questions 98-149. This section provides an in depth commentary on what each commandment requires and forbids, as well as discussion of the promises and threats. Before diving into the commandments the Larger Catechism lists eight rules for right understanding of the ten commandments. Here they are with my comments below each one.

Q99: What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments?
A99: For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed:
1. That the law is perfect, and binds everyone to full conformity in the whole man unto the righteousness thereof, and unto entire obedience forever; so as to require the utmost perfection of every duty, and to forbid the least degree of every sin.

The ten commandments are binding upon all men and require complete and total obedience. Here is one reason we need Jesus. The law requires perfection, which we cannot achieve.

2. That it is spiritual, and so reaches the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul; as well as words, works, and gestures.

The second rule is the commandments govern not just our outward actions, but also our inner life. As Jesus said, you have not obeyed the commandment to not murder if you hate your brother in your heart. Men love to believe that external obedience is all that the law requires. Too many Christians, especially in our fast paced world with little time for reflection, do not examine their will, affections, desires, loves, as they ought to. We obey outwardly, but our hearts are not bent to the law. 

3. That one and the same thing, in divers respects, is required or forbidden in several commandments.

This rule is a more difficult to understand. But if you look at the Scripture verses quotes by the WLC you can see what their point is. It quotes Colossians 3:5, Amos 8:5, Proverbs 1:9, and I Timothy 6:10. If you look at those verses you will see that breaking one commandment is linked with breaking another. For example, in Colossians 3:5 coveting is linked with idolatry and in Proverbs 1:9 theft is linked with murder. The point is that disobedience to one command always carries with it disobedience to other commandments. We disobey in clusters.

4. That as, where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included.

When I first read the WLC’s discussion of the ten commandments the approach described in this rule was foreign to me. I thought “do not steal” meant do not steal. But now I realize that God’s law is more expansive than that. Here is the WLC description of what duties are required by the command “do not steal.”

Q141: What are the duties required in the eighth commandment?
A141: The duties required in the eighth commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others;moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits and suretyship, or other like engagements;and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.

The command to not steal requires me, among other things, to “get a lawful calling [job],” to avoid “unnecessary lawsuits,” and to make sure I “further the wealth and outward estate of others.” Rule #4 reminds us that the commandments go deep and cover a lot of areas we don’t usually think about. Bare observance of the command is not obedience.

5. That what God forbids, is at no time to be done;What he commands, is always our duty;and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.

This is one is self explanatory.  We are never to to do what God forbids and always to do what he requires, but we cannot do all duties all the time.

6. That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.

This rule makes several points. First, the command includes all similar acts. For example, the commandment to not commit adultery also forbids fornication, sodomy, and rape. The commandment to not steal also forbids kidnapping. Second, all things (causes and means) which lead to the breaking of the commandment are sin. For example, murder is often preceded by bitterness and anger, which is itself proceeded by a failure to trust in God and his providence. Each step is a sin, not just the final sin of murder. On the positive side, if a child is to honor his parents there are steps and attitudes to doing that which precede the outward act of honoring. Third we are to avoid any occasions which might lead to the sin. If you struggle with lust avoid the pool. If you are prone to anger try to avoid situations that make you angry. In other words, don’t just think about the sin itself. Think about what path you took to get there. Don’t put yourself in tempting situations. Fourth, we are to avoid even the appearance of sinning and evil. Don’t toe the line.

7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.
8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.

These are similar so I lumped them together. The idea in these two rules is that we are to help others obey the commandments, to prevent others from breaking the commandments, and to refrain from participating with them when they break the commandments. This one can be dangerous in our age so a caution are in order.

Note the phrase “according to our places” which is in both rules.  In our Internet bossy age we all think we have the right/duty to tell everyone else how to live. But we each have a place and that place involves relationships. Some of those relationships are with equals, some are with those over us, and some with those under us. Understanding this dynamic will prevent you from stepping over a line and from getting upset when someone who has legitimate authority intrudes in your life. A pastor has a right to shepherd his flock in a way a member of the congregation does not. Parents have authority over their children that the next door neighbor does not. To help others obey or to prevent them from disobeying normally requires a particular type of relationship.

One other thought on rule #8. We are required to help others obey. We tend to think of this as telling them what to do. While that is part of the intent, it is not the only one or maybe even the primary one. The goal here is to live in such a way as to help others be righteous. For example, parents are to live so that it is easier for their child to honor them not harder. At your job you are to make it easier for your boss to direct you, not harder. If you drive the poor into the ground you are making it harder for them not to steal. If you introduce worship practices that have no grounding in Scripture but could facilitate idolatry, such as icons, you may not be intentionally breaking the commandment about idols, but you are making it easier for others to. If you run around half-naked then you are making it harder for men to not break the commandment about adultery. This would also be a caution against speculative theology which can lead to false views of God. The point here is not that you are responsible for the sin of the other person. They are still guilty. But you made it harder for them to obey. Part of loving our neighbor is doing what we can to help them obey God’s commands.