Adore and Ignore
The Ten Commandments have very widespread acceptance throughout the
western world. Even people who have given up on the church or stopped
believing in God will say that they live by the Ten Commandments. In the
United States, the Ten Commandments are often displayed on courthouse wall
and other public places.
However, despite all the attention and mention, the actual commandments
are mostly ignored. The people claiming to live by them would be hard
pushed to list five of the ten. Despite their place of honour in the
United States, they have almost no affect on laws and lawmaking. Even
serious Christians are uncertain about what to do with the Ten
Commandments. They know that they live under grace rather than law, so it
is not clear how the Ten Commandments fit with Godís grace. This is an
important issue that we must get sorted.
The Ten Commandments are not totally relevant to Christian life. The
reason is that they were given as part of the covenant between God and
Israel. The Bible explains why the Ten Commandments were given.
Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain
and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what
you are to tell the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did
to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to
myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all
nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is
mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These
are the words you are to speak to the Israelites (Ex 19:3-6).
The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our
fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who
are alive here today. The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire
on the mountain (Deut 5:2-4).
These are the commandments the LORD proclaimed in a loud voice to your
whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and
the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two
stone tablets and gave them to meÖ..So be careful to do what the LORD
your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left.
33 Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that
you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will
possess (Deut 5:22,32-33).
The Ten Commandments were the expression of the covenant between God
and the children of Israel. To keep their side of the covenant, Israel was
required to keep all Ten Commandments. Some of the commandments had
penalties for disobedience. This covenant with God was partly enforced by
their judges. Under this system, blasphemy was a crime punishable by the
We no longer live under the old covenant. The basis of the new covenant
is that Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the old covenant. He perfectly
obeyed each of the Ten Commandments throughout his life. We receive
salvation through trusting in everything that Jesus accomplished;
including his perfect life and perfect death. The benefits of the new
covenant are received through faith in Jesus, not through obeying the Ten
Commandments (see Law and Grace).
Does this mean that the Ten Commandments are no longer relevant to the
Christian life? The answer is No and Yes. The most important point is that
they are no longer relevant as a basis of salvation. We have a much better
way of salvation through Jesus. However, the Ten Commandment have three
other uses that are still relevant to the Christian life.
Sharing the Gospel
The Ten Commandments are a useful tool when sharing the gospel. The
law against coverting convicts everyone of sin, if they are honest (Rom 7:7-12).
Guidance for Christian Living
Although we are not saved through obeying the law, we express our love
for Jesus by living holy lives. The Ten Commandments provide a little
guidance about how Christians should live. A new Christian should stop
stealing and cursing God. However, these commandments do not take us very
far. A new believer can stop stealing, killing and cursing God, but that
does not take them far as a Christian. Learning to follow the guidance of
the Holy Spirit is far more important for growing as a Christian.
A Basis for Civil Law
Every legal system needs a moral basis for law making. In a society
where most citizens are Christians, basing the law on the Ten Commandments
seems like a good idea.
In this article, I will focus on this third use of the law. However,
the Ten Commandments cannot be translated directly into civil law, because
they were designed for the old covenant. They need to be fed through the
new covenant before they can be used as a guide for civil law.
The Ten Commandments are divided into two parts. The first five belong
to God and the second five belong to man. Analysis of the first five
commandments shows that God reserves the right to judge the first five
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in
heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not
bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous
God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and
fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand
generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD
will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.ÖÖ. Therefore the
LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the
land the LORD your God is giving you.
All except the first have a statement that God will deal with offences
against them. God will punish and he will bless. He will work out the
consequence of breaking these five commands in history, or on the day of
These commandments are relevant to how we live, but people are
accountable to God for our obedience to them. They are not accountable to
other men for them, so judges are not required to deal with loving God,
false worship, honouring our parents, blasphemy or keeping the Sabbath.
(Sabbath breaking ceased being a crime when Jesus gave us our true rest -
The second five commandments belong to man (Exodus 20:13-17).
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
You shall not covet
Adultery, theft, murder and perjury are crimes because penalties are
set out for these in the remainder of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Human judges
are expected to deal with these crimes.
The tenth commandment adds an interesting twist. Coveting is listed as
a sin, but there is no punishment specified for it, so it is not a crime.
The obvious reason for this is that it is impossible for a judge to prove
what a person is coveting. No one can testify that another person is
coveting, because we cannot see into another personís mind. Judges can
only deal with coveting, when the coveter acts on his thoughts and
translates them into theft or adultery. So although man has five
commandments, he is not equal with God, because there is one that he
cannot deal with.
I will examine the Ten Commandments in detail and identify those that
are still relevant after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
No Other Gods
The first and second commandments are hard to separate.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself
an idol in the form of anything (Ex 20:3,4).
The requirements of these commandments still apply to Christians. Part
of the act of becoming a Christian is a declaration that Jesus is Lord;
that there is not other god that can match him. The warning about the
dangers of idols and images is really important in a culture where image
However, these sins are no longer as crimes punishable by civil
authorities. In Israel, the death penalty was required for those who chose
to worship other gods. As Israel had chosen God to be their King,
following another God was a form of treason and the normal penalty for
treason and sedition was death (Deut 13:12-16). Under the new covenant
people freely choose the Lord as their God. His greatest gift to us is
freedom, so he will never force sinners to love him, if they are
unwilling. God wants people to obey him, because they love him, not
because they have to. The most that he will do to make them love him is
the Holy Spiritís stirring in their hearts. Following Godís example,
we should never use political power to force people to believe in God.
The third commandment forbids blasphemy.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God (Ex 20:7).
Under the old covenant, this commandment was enforced by the civil
authorities. Leviticus 24:10-16 describes how a man was stoned for
blasphemy. I have shown in other articles that Leviticus only
applies to Israel and not in the new covenant situation. Godís command
in Leviticus 24:15 was specifically addressed to Israel, so it does not
apply in today. He now uses the Holy Spirit to protect and honour his
Christians are often tempted to use the power of the state to protect
the name of God. They have sometimes to get blasphemy laws adopted and
enforced. This is a dangerous mistake. God is perfectly capable of
protecting his name. By the work of the Spirit, every knee will eventually
bow and confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2:10-11).
God gave the Sabbath to Israel as a gift to mark them off from the
surrounding nations. Resting from work was an expression of trust in God
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor
and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your
God (Ex 20:8-10).
The civil authorities in Israel rigorously enforced the sabbath (Num
Since the coming of Jesus, love for each other is the distinctive that
marks Christians off from the world (John 13:34,35). Jesus fulfilled the
new commandment by washing his dispels feet.
We achieve our rest through faith in Jesus. According to Hebrews 4, we
have a better rest through Jesus.
Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said (Heb
This means that the Sabbath laws have been fulfilled in Jesus and that
they no longer need to be enforced. Christians have often succumbed to the
temptation to use the power of the state to enforce a Sunday rest. This
has done a great deal of harm to the gospel.
The concept of a weekly rest remains a principle of life. Having a day
of rest each week is good for human health. We should all try to have a
day of rest each week and employers should allow their staff to rest at
least one day a week. It does not matter which day people rest, but have a
break from labour is good for their physical and mental health.
The fifth commandment requires everyone to honour their parents. There
were civil penalties for children who insulted their parents (Exodus
21:15,17). These penalties are no longer mandatory, because they were part
of the system specifically given to Israel, to distinguish them from the
You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and
be afraid (Deut 21:21)
People should still honour their parents, but this should now be
voluntary rather than mandatory. Civil penalties are no longer required
now that the Holy Spirit is able to change our hearts and attitudes.
The tenth commandment forbids coveting things that belong to other
people (Ex 20:17). A sin becomes a crime when there is a civil penalty
attached to it. No punishment is specified for coveting, even for the
children of Israel. The obvious reason for this is that it is impossible
for civil authorities to prove that a person is coveting. No one can
testify that another person is coveting, because we cannot see into
another personís heart. Civil authorities can only deal with coveting,
when the coveter acts on his thoughts and translates them into theft or
This commandment is a good example of a sin that is not a crime. Even
in Israel, coveting was outside the scope of the civil authorities.
The seventh commandment prohibits adultery. However, this command was
not enforced, even in Israel.
Jesus replied, ďMoses permitted you to divorce your wives because
your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning (Matt
Moses did not enforce the law against adultery, because the peopleís
hearts were hard. There were so many people committing adultery that
applying biblical sanctions would have been unacceptable. God does not
want his law to be enforced on a society that is opposed to it.
If a law is constantly being disobeyed, the authority of the entire law
will be undermined. If adultery were widespread, a law against it would
become a joke. Far better, to put the law against adultery on hold until
society changed. God has not changed his mind; rather he is realistic
about what can be achieved by law.
A law that is being widely ignored cannot be enforced. This is what
Moses did. Instead of undermining respect for the law by trying to enforce
adultery laws that the people did not want, he chose not to enforce them.
If Moses showed mercy, we should too. In modern society, adultery is so
widespread that enforcing a law against it would be impractical. Adultery
laws must be taken off line in our time, due to ďhardness of heartĒ.
This hardness of heart principle means that relationship crimes should
not be enforced in a society where the majority of people are not
Christian. If Moses showed mercy, we should too. If he did not enforce Godís
standard against adultery, we should not be attempting to establish laws
against other ďrelationship sinsĒ. God has changed his mind; rather he
is realistic about what can be achieved by the Law. Once the majority of
people have been converted, these laws will be unnecessary.
The ninth commandment has an application in modern society, but it is
not a law to be enforced across the entire community. Rahab was not
breaking this law when she lied to the soldiers searching for the
Israelite spies (Joshua 2). We are not required to tell the truth to our
enemies or business opposition.
This command is only relevant to the judicial process. It applies to
judicial procedure and is not a general law.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour (Ex 20:16).
Honesty and truth are essential for the working of the judicial system.
Witnesses much not give false testimony, whether to protect themselves or
to protect someone else. Judges must always follow the truth, no matter
where it leads.
The Bible applies a reverse golden rule to those who give false
evidence: having done to yourself what you were doing to others (Deut
19:16-19). The liar receives the penalty that they person they were lying
about might have received.
Whatís Left Behind?
So far in this discussion I have knocked out eight commandments. They
are still relevant for those who choose to please God, but they are not to
be enforced by the civil authorities. This leaves just two of the Ten
Commandments that are relevant to civil order in the modern world. The two
that are relevant are murder and theft. These two laws should be enforced
by the civic authorities (ignoring false testimony). There would not be
much controversy because theft and murder are recognised as sins by
Murder is a crime that should be dealt with be civic authorities.
Murder is unlawful killing of another person. The law gives examples that
enable the boundaries around murder to be defined.
Killing a person in self defence is not murder (Ex 22:2).
Killing a soldier during a war is not murder. (Deut 20:12,13). This
rule does not apply to all wars, but only a community is being defended.
Intent is important. Murder occurs, if a man schemes and kills
another man deliberately (Ex 21:12). A person cannot be held accountable
for something that was beyond their control. An accidental death is not
murder (Ex 21:12).
Allowing a dangerous animal or machine to wander without restraint
could become murder if someone is killed (Ex 21:29).
Murder is a form of assault, so all assault is covered by this
Stealing something that belongs to someone else is a sin that should be
punished by civil authorities. The Bible gives a number of examples that
assist with the definition of theft.
Stealing another personís property is theft. (Ex 22:1).
Distorting the records of property ownership is a form of theft.
Assault is also theft as it robs a person of their freedom and
ability to earn.
Breach of contract that has been freely agreed is also theft. (Ex
Disputes about legal entitlement to property can be theft (Ex 22:9).
Slander is another form of theft because it robs a person of their
A benefit of the Ten Commandments in the modern world is that they
significantly limit state power. If my analysis is correct, only two of
the Ten Commandments can be enforced by civil authorities (ignoring false
testimony). This severely limits there authority to pass laws.
These two commandments are comprehensive, because they provide
protection for life and property. That is all that law can do. Laws can
influence external behaviour, but they cannot change hearts. They cannot
make people be good. The most that the law can do is provide limited
protection against theft and violence. Law cannot produce good people or
Highest Common Denominator
The key to acceptance of a system of law is finding the "highest
common denominator", to twist a mathematical expression. The highest
common denominator is what most people will be committed to, or at least
not object to. The aim should be to find positions that most people can
agree on. In the past, when a Christian world view was more widespread,
that highest common denominator was more Christian, but as pluralism has
increased, some of the things that were widely accepted in the past, are
no longer part of the highest common denominator.
Culture and the media shape the highest common denominator, so it is
not constant, but changes over time. Prayer in schools was once part of
the highest common denominator, but now it is not. Likewise, abortion was
once was, but now is not part of the highest common denominator.
The best common denominator is the second table of the law. It limits
law to prohibiting crimes that will always be part of the highest common
denominator. Almost everyone believes that murder, assault, theft and
false witness are crimes. They are specified as crimes in most legal
systems. Most people believe that adultery is wrong, but not everyone
wants it to be a crime (Moses did not enforce the adultery laws). The
second table of the law remains part of the highest common denominator,
even in a wicked or pluralistic society.
The same applies to the biblical principles about the functioning of
the law. Everyone accepts the principle of proportional restitution.
Everyone accepts that just should be tempered by mercy.
A highest common denominator approach means that politics must remain
humble. The problem is that most politicians want to do too much, so they
end up going beyond the highest common denominator and start forcing
significant groups of people to do things that they do not want to do, ie
forcing a minority to do what the majority believe is good. Godís law is
No doubt some readers are wondering why I bother with the Ten
Commandments. Why do I spend so much effort digging around in the Old
Testament? Why not just focus on the gospels? Why not just get on with
The answer is that to find a complete theology of government, we have to go back to
Exodus and Deuteronomy. That is where you will find most of the biblical
teaching on the role of civil government. The reason that these issues are
not covered in the New Testament is not that God does not care, but that
they are already covered. The New Testament just modifies, where appropriate, what has
already been given in the Old Testament. It does not repeat all the good
The problem with looking for political theology in the Old Testament
law is that a lot of stuff is mixed up together. Judicial laws are mixed
up with rules peculiar to the nation of Israel. Stuff that is still
relevant is mixed up with stuff that was fulfilled by Jesus and is no
longer relevant. My aim in digging through this stuff is to develop a
political theology that is relevant for today.
Most of the scriptures were written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit
(1 Tim 3:16). The only passage written directly by Father God was the
These are the commandments the LORD proclaimed in a loud voice to your
whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and
the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two
stone tablets and gave them to me (Deut 5:22).
The fact that God recorded the Ten Commandments himself suggests they
are extremely important, yet most Christians are quite ambivalent about
them. Most would find be hard pushed to remember all ten and many actually
hate Godís law. This is amazing. God spoke his laws directly to man.
Knowing that he spoke directly, we should treasure the Ten Commandments.
So what do we have in the Ten Commandments? Well quite a lot actually.
We have ten standards that all people will have to give an account
against when they stand before God on judgment day. These standards are
also useful those preaching the gospel, when a description of sin is
required. Those who claim to have never sinned and want a definition of
sin will find the Ten Commandment quite challenging.
We also have ten principles for life. Resting one day a week and not
coveting will not make you holy, but you will avoid ulcers and anxiety.
We have two sins that are also crimes. Murder and theft are crimes that
should be enforced by civil authorities.