We finished the article in ET, November 2016, by saying that humanism today claims to be neutral, but really makes man a god, sometimes by making laws that are against God’s law.
The ultimate choice for churches and for human beings in the way they live (whether they are believers or not) is between autonomy (man is a law to himself) or theonomy (obeying God’s law; nomos is Greek for law). The ten commandments are given to help us to serve God.
The ten commandments or ‘words’ of Exodus 20 did not drop from heaven in a packet. They correspond to the law in nature established in creation.
Human beings are all God’s creatures and have the ‘work of the law’ written in their hearts (Romans 2:15). That means it is ‘second nature’ for man to do all these things, and be happy doing them. It is sin that is unnatural, since it turns obedience to God into rebellion. The ten commandments repeat what all human beings know deep down to be good and true.
This is often denied. People will say that atheism is more natural than believing in God. But it is not. Atheists have their gods, which are so many idols or substitute gods. In our society, political correctness is the new god of humanism, and we are all called to bow down and worship it.
Put it another way. People commit adultery, steal, lie, murder and curse God, but what society ever existed where these things were made legal or thought to be good? Why? Because faithfulness, justice, honesty, respect of human life and authority are taken to be good and promoted everywhere.
This fact does not stop sinners disobeying God’s law and enjoying sin, because people are perverse and pursue it, until its effects catch up, or until they are themselves victims of sin and become indignant.
There is no particular reason for there to be ten commands rather than twelve. But it is important to note that God only gave ten and not the 613 commands that Jewish tradition later elaborated. The latter is legalism, whereas God has given a great deal of liberty in applying his law to various situations.
What is important is that the ten commandments touch all areas of life and encourage us to serve God in everything we do, first of all with regard to him, and then in relation to other people.
The first table of the law (according to the Westminster Confession, chapter 19) concerns commands 1-4 and tells us what is right with regard to God: rejecting other gods, respecting him and resting in him on the Sabbath day. Commands 5-10 concern our attitudes to others and cover the broad lines of family and social life.
So here we have the two sides of God’s covenant with man: love for God and love for our fellows.
It all fits together
Like a motor in a car, the ten commandments all work together and explain each other.
Take adultery for instance. It inevitably involves stealing love, lying, the murder of trust and desiring what’s not ours. Nor can there be rest with God in adultery; it is idolatry, because it fouls God’s name by abusing another creature, who is in God’s image, and rejecting God. That is why spiritual unfaithfulness is frequently portrayed as adultery in the Old Testament.
Each commandment of the ten is also exemplary; each illustrates a whole area of life.
So shoplifting may be theft, but so also is stealing the employer’s time through bogus sickies, or false tax declarations, cheating in exams, stealing a car, etc. ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23), because they steal God’s glory in serving the creature rather than the Creator.
A common misconception is to say that Christians have nothing to do with the Old Testament law, because they are free from it.
This is true only in so far as the accusation and condemnation of the law is concerned, because believers are no longer under its sentence of death. But not in so far as obedience is concerned, because we recognise that God is a moral God.
Jesus did not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17), but to fulfil it; and if we are as believers united to him by faith, we will seek to obey God as his disciples.
The law is for God’s creatures, and we have not stopped being human because we are believers. When we are united to Christ, we are united in him to his life of obedience to the law — to his pure and perfect humanity, which makes us more human, not less.
For this reason, in the New Testament all the ten commandments are reiterated in one way or another and become exhortations for life in Christ, to be lived in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul Wells was a founding professor of the Jean Calvin Faculté, Aix-en-Provence, France. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary, USA.