Rules for Rightly Understanding the Ten Commandments
In his magnificent work, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, John Colquhoun has a chapter titled, “Rules for Rightly Understanding the Ten Commandments” (pp 85-98), which is similar to Question 99 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the Ten Commandments?” I highly recommend all of Colquhoun’s book, but this chapter is helpful to Christians in understanding how to apply the Ten Commandments in their lives. Let us apply these rules to ourselves and teach them to our children.
1. Where a duty is required, the contrary sin is forbidden (Is 58:13), and where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is required (Eph 4:28).
When Paul expounds the Ten Commandments in his letter to the Ephesians (chapters 4-6), he mentions the 8thcommandment, “You shall not steal.” Paul explains that not only is stealing forbidden in the commandment, but it requires that he “labor, doing honest works with his own hands, so that he may have something to give to anyone in need” (Eph 4:28).
2. Where a duty is required, every duty of the same kind is also required, and where a sin is forbidden, every evil of the same sort is also prohibited.
For example, when the fifth commandment requires us to honor our fathers and our mothers, it also requires us to honor all whom the Lord places in authority over us (Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13). Similarly, when the Lord forbids us to kill, He also forbids us to strike or wound our neighbor, or to harbor malice or revenge (Matt 5:21-22).
3. That which is forbidden is at no time to be done, but that which is required is to be done only when the Lord affords opportunity.
This is an important rule. It means that the positive requirements are always our duty, but any particular duty is not to be performed at all times. There is never an appropriate time to steal, for example, and it is always our duty to give, but we are only required to give in particular instances as we have opportunity to give. Galatians 6:10 says, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.”
4. Whatever we ourselves are commanded to be, do, or forbear, we are obliged to do all that it is possible for us to do, according to our places and stations in society, to make others around us to be, do or forbear the same.
For example, those in authority should lead those under their authority to keep the commandments. And we are forbidden to participate with others in their sins, either by example, advice, or other encouragement. 1 Timothy 5:22 says not to “take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.”
5. The same duty is required and the same sin is forbidden, in different respects, in several and even in all the divine commands.
When a single commandment is broken, they are virtually all broken. The commandments are so intimately connected that if God’s authority is slighted in one, it is slighted in all. James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”
6. Where a duty is required, the use of all the means of performing it aright, is required, and where a sin is forbidden every cause, and even every occasion of it, are prohibited.
For example, children are commanded to honor their parents. In order to aid children in honoring their parents, God requires parents to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4). God forbids murder, which means He also forbids anger and malice, which become occasions to murder. He forbids adultery, and He also forbids drunkenness, gluttony, and idleness, which are often occasions of adultery.
7. No sin is at any time to be committed in order to avoid or prevent a greater sin.
We must never “do evil that good may come” (Rom 3:8). We are never under a necessity of sinning. God always provides a way of escape. Therefore, it is not true that one must sin to avoid greater sin.
8. The commandments of the second table of the law must give place to those of the first when they cannot both be observed together.
For example, while we are commanded to honor our fathers and mothers, we must prefer Christ in our esteem and affection to our parents (Matt 10:37). If ever the commands of our superiors come into conflict with the law of God, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19).
9. In our obedience, we should have a special and constant respect to the scope and final end at which the Lord aims by all the commandments in general or by any one of them in particular.
The greatest goal in the commandments is perfect holiness of heart and life to the glory of God. The commandments are the way to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
10. The beginning and the end, as well as the sum, of all the commandments is love.
Scripture teaches, “Love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Rom 13:10). And, “The aim of our charge is love” (1 Tim 1:5). The love of God to man is the sum of the gospel. The love of man to God is the sum of the law.
See also the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 99.
Q. What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the Ten Commandments?
A. For the right understanding of the Ten Commandments, these rules are to be observed:
- That the law is perfect, and bindeth every one 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.
- That it is spiritual, and so reacheth the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul; as well as words, works, and gestures.
- That one and the same thing, in divers respects, is required or forbidden in several commandments.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.