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 effect 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 God's grace. This is an important issue that we must get sorted.

Old Covenant

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 me. 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 civil authorities.

New Covenant

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 Commandmentd have three other uses that are still relevant to the Christian life.

  1. Sharing the Gospel

    The Ten Commandments are a useful tool when sharing the gospel. The law against coveting convicts everyone of sin, if they are honest (Rom 7:7-12).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Interesting Structure

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 commandments himself.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.

  2. 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.

  3. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy... Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

  5. 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 judgement.

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 (Heb 4:1-11).

The second five commandments belong to man (Exodus 20:13-17).

  1. You shall not murder.

  2. You shall not commit adultery.

  3. You shall not steal.

  4. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

  5. 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 person's mind. Judges can only deal with coveting, when the coveter acts on their 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 no other god that can match him. The warning about the dangers of idols and images is really important in a culture where image is everything.

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 Spirit's stirring in their hearts. Following God's 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. God's 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 name.

Christians are often tempted to use the power of the state to protect the name of God. They have sometimes tried 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).

The Sabbath

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 as provider.

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 15:32-36).

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 4:3).

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.

Honouring Parents

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 surrounding nations.

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 person's heart. Civil authorities can only deal with coveting, when the coveter acts on their thoughts and translates them into theft or adultery.

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, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning (Matt 19:8).

Moses did not enforce the law against adultery, because the people's 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 "hardness of heart".

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 God's standard against adultery, we should not be attempting to establish laws against other "relationship sins". 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.

False Testimony

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 the person they were lying about might have received.

What's 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 everyone everywhere.


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.

  1. Killing a person in self-defence is not murder (Ex 22:2).

  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.

  3. 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).

  4. Allowing a dangerous animal or machine to wander without restraint could become murder if someone is killed (Ex 21:29).

  5. Murder is a form of assault, so all assault is covered by this command.


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.

  1. Stealing another person's property is theft. (Ex 22:1).

  2. Distorting the records of property ownership is a form of theft. (Deut 25:1).

  3. Assault is also theft as it robs a person of their freedom and ability to earn.

  4. Breach of contract that has been freely agreed is also theft. (Ex 22:7,8).

  5. Disputes about legal entitlement to property can be theft (Ex 22:9).

  6. Slander is another form of theft because it robs a person of their reputation.

Political Power

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 eliminate evil.

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. God's law is more humble.

Why Bother

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 life.

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 stuff again.

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 judicial laws.

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 God's 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 for 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.

For more on the Ten Commandments, see the book called Government of God.