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Commandments anyone? Meaning and Origins

November 2016 | by Paul Wells

People today have all kinds of problems with authority and the idea of commandments. Nobody really likes being told what to do. They think it childish.

In the case of God’s commandments, people imagine a tyrant laying down the law, wanting to take away human freedom and pleasure in life. Law is bad, freedom is good, so they think.

The reason for this is that everyone is, by nature, sinful and wants to protect their way of behaving. So they set up a straw man which allows them to push God out of the back door. However, this does not stop God coming in through the front, because we all have a conscience.

Many who throw out the baby keep the bath water and remain very moral and even judgmental of others. Apart from this, almost everyone (some anarchists aside) recognises the need for laws to keep us safe and secure.


The meaning of ‘commandments’ in the Bible puts us straight on this. Firstly, the word ‘commandment’ means ‘prescription’, something to be taken to get better.

Get a prescription from the doctor, the medicine will make you well. God’s law prescribes behaviour to make sinners well again. Luther said the church is a place for the sick to get better, and God’s law helps us to do this when we respect it and obey.

Secondly, the Bible’s good news is that we are saved by grace. The gospel does what the works of the law cannot do. Good works never save. If we look to the law for help, we only find how sinful we are.

God’s law in its long form is found in the Old Testament in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and in a short form in Exodus 20, where the ten commandments are given. His law was given to a covenant people who had already been saved from sin and delivered from the bondage of Egypt, for obedience to God in a new life.

All the bricks made in Egypt cannot get us out of Egypt. Only God’s grace can deliver. So the law, and the ten commandments, are essentially given to a saved people to help them obey.

Jesus gave an even shorter version of the law in Matthew 22:37-29: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind … love your neighbour as yourself’.

So obedience to the commandments is motivated by love for God, because he has saved us. If we love him, we will want to keep his commands.


Laws always have a religious origin. They may be biblical law, sharia law, Hindu law, communist law, or simply humanistic law, but they express the beliefs and values of a society.

As with ancient Israel, we live in a situation of ‘polytheism’, that is one where many gods (including the state and celebrities) claim our attention. Secularism and pluralism puts all religions on the same level — in the realm of subjective preference (‘it’s up to you which god you worship’).

The laws that have been introduced in this country are often against God’s law. We are told that we must be tolerant of other laws because we live in a multicultural society. But the real question is who makes the laws and to what end?

Relativistic humanism has become the main cultural force in Western Europe, and it seeks to broker compromises between various beliefs by claiming to be neutral towards religions, including Christianity.

But it is not neutral, because it enacts humanistic laws that are replacing biblical laws. So biblical law is put aside and man becomes a god in the place of God. Often churches follow suit and compromise, against the message of Scripture. When they do this, they are no longer biblical or Christian churches.

God’s laws

People often think that, because something is legal, it is right and good. So it is taken for granted that abortion, same-sex relationships, gambling, and legal highs are not wrong because they are ‘legal’.

However, though the law might legislate or permit them, God is the only giver of laws for humans to obey. When human laws contradict God’s, we must follow our conscience, and God rather than man (Acts 5:29).

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.

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