What is the Use of the Ten Commandments?

What is the Use of the Ten Commandments?

If you were to poll society regarding rules for life, you would get many different answers. Some of them might even contain a few examples from the Ten Commandments. But you would probably gather a large consensus around a few secular core doctrines. One popular sentiment would be that there is not one “right way” to live. Another might be that people should be allowed to do whatever makes them happy provided it does not harm someone else. Many would advocate for the right for a woman to choose what to do with her own body. 

As the list gained clarity there might even be popular agreement that the world would be a better place if everyone would live according to these core values. There would be an assumption that an agreed-upon moral code is better than no code at all. Anarchy is generally accepted as leading to chaos.

But polling society has not always provided the best results in history.

Not too long ago I came across a story about the British government’s attempt to name a $287 million polar research vessel. In an effort to generate publicity for the new vessel, the government decided to name the royal research ship by way of an internet vote. The agency in charge of the contest suggested to British citizens that they look at names such as Ernest Shackleton (the famous explorer), Endeavor, or Falcon. But the people’s overwhelming, runaway choice for this state-of-the-art research vessel—the clear winner of the internet vote—was (are you ready for it?): “Boaty McBoatface.”

Kevin DeYoung, The 10 Commandments

In this series, we will consider why it is important not to get your standards of conduct from society, but to look to the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments.

Memorizing the Ten Commandments

Although reciting the Ten Commandments in corporate worship is fairly new to our church, it has a long tradition in church history. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of time at the end of our service to provide a lengthy explanation. My hope in this series is that we will have a better understanding of the ongoing value of the moral law for believers.

I encourage you to spend time memorizing the Ten Commandments over the course of this series. Start today. Try to recite the Ten Commandments to one another. Then set the goal of memorizing them and meditating upon their importance. 

There is historical precedence for the value of this. It was something that every Jewish boy learned in the synagogue growing up. All of our reformed catechisms are based on teaching us the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Almost half of the Westminster Shorter Catechism deals with questions about the Ten Commandments. 

Until relatively recently, this was something that took place in public schools! Prior to 1980, it was not uncommon to see the Ten Commandments posted somewhere in the classroom. J.I. Packer, who was born in England in 1926, had to memorize the Ten Commandments in public school before he was ten-years-old. It was not that long ago that it was reasonable to expect every adult to know them and be able to recite them from memory.

You can find some great resources with illustrations to associate with each commandment. Or you might have the kids design their own memory devices. This can be a great exercise for children and adults in our church.

Read Exodus 20:1-21

Today I simply want to set the stage for our series with a couple of clarifying remarks. You may find some help in understanding how different traditions have numbered the commandments.

I. The Number the Ten Commandments

The passage does not number each commandment, nor do we read “Ten Commandments” anywhere in the passage. In fact, they are never referred to as commandments. That is why they are also known as the Decalogue, which is Greek for “ten words” (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4). Either way, “words” or “commandments” both suggest stipulations for obedience because of the context in which they were given. We will consider that in a moment.

Did you know that there are three different ways for counting the Ten Commandments? 

  1. The Jewish tradition counts verse two as the first commandment. However, the earlier tradition represented by Philo and Josephus consider this the prologue (as most other Protestant traditions). 
  2. The Catholic and Lutheran traditions consider vv.3-6 as pertaining to the first commandment. To make up the difference they separate v.17 into the ninth and tenth commandments. So they have one commandment regarding worship at the beginning, and two commandments regarding coveting at the end.
  3. The Reformed, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions count the first commandment as v.3 and the second commandment from vv.4-6. This is the most common way to number them and it is the system we will be following.

The rest of the commands are consistently divided. The result is that the Catholic and Lutheran position is a number behind. For instance, whenever I speak of the fourth commandment, they would refer to it as the third commandment. There is no theological difference between these various methods for numbering, but understanding them may save you some confusion if you are ever reading something from a different tradition.

Since the typical reaction to the Ten Commandments is negative, we need to consider their importance in redemptive history.

II. The Importance of the Ten Commandments

When it comes to the Ten Commandments of Scripture, people seem to generally have negative reactions. Secular historians see them as just another example of ever-evolving moral codes that men have lived by throughout history. They are no more helpful than the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu, or the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. 

But even professing believers seem to have a disdain for the Ten Commandments. They see them as belonging to the Old Testament when God was strict and had no room for grace. They think the love of Christ replaced the need for the law of God.

Just consider the Christian view of the fourth commandment to “Honor the Sabbath day…” Most believers think that commandment has been replaced by the freedom to treat Sunday just like every other day of the week. There is nothing sacred about Sunday, even if many Christians happen to go to church for an hour or two in the morning. If it were more convenient to attend church on another day, they would have no problem doing so.

The Ten Commandments and the Covenant

In some ways, the Ten Commandments are similar to other ancient documents. What is found here might be more appropriately thought of as covenant terms, rather than codes of law. They follow the format of ancient suzerainty treaties which included an explanation of the parties involved in the preamble, followed by a prologue that explains the relationship between the parties, and a list of the stipulations which define the treaty arrangement. Those stipulations were often proposed in two parts: general parameters followed by particular requirements. 

Although not found in this passage, other places in the Pentateuch mention the covenant witnesses, the need to keep a written record, as well as the blessings and curses that were commonly included in ancient treaty documents. In other words, God’s covenant was following a pattern that the original audience was quite familiar with.

However, there was also something unique about the Ten Commandments. They did not simply copy the example of other nations. God’s covenantal arrangement with His people was different. This covenant was not so easily broken because God placed so much emphasis upon His commitment to keeping it with all future generations. 

He could promise this because He had a plan to redeem His people. The redemptive purpose of God is where the giving of the Ten Commandments begins. That is what the prologue is all about. And that is where we will turn our attention next week.

Lastly, we need to consider the three uses of the law.

III. The Three Uses of the Ten Commandments

The reformers often spoke of the threefold use of the law. Although Martin Luther acknowledged different uses of the law, it was John Calvin who clearly articulated the three uses in book two of his Institutes of the Christian Religion

It is important to consider these uses in order to understand how the Ten Commandments are relevant to us today. Are they only meant for unbelievers? Are they only meant for believers? Actually, we find that they pertain to everyone.

1. Mirror (Pedagogical, Theological) 

We see the righteousness of God reflected in the law. On the flip side of that, we also see the sinfulness of humanity. Just as you might find a coffee stain on your favorite shirt while you are getting ready in front of a mirror, the law reveals something we couldn’t clearly see before. 

First, it reveals your inability to keep it. Second, it defines the iniquity that we inevitably commit. And finally, it pronounces the inescapable curse. This, of course, results in a deep conviction. And that would be its purpose. It is how you respond to that conviction that is the key. 

This use of the law compels us to humbly seek the mercy of God. It is like a schoolmaster who drives us to Christ for our justification (Galatians 3:24). Knowing our natural weakness causes us to look to Christ for grace. After acknowledging his inability to do what is good, Paul looks to Christ. He says, 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4 (ESV)

Imagine what condemnation the Church would avoid if we were regularly brought to repentance for our sin and reminded of the assurance of pardon we have in Christ! When you consider the Ten Commandments apart from their relationship to Christ, you wind up with legalism. Instead of making disciples, the church churns out nothing but Pharisees.

2. Muzzle (Political, Civil)

This use emphasizes how the law restrains evil. The law cannot change human hearts but it can promote justice. Civil and judicial authorities can look to the law to more accurately determine right from wrong. 

Imagine the impact it would have upon society if people began to take the Ten Commandments seriously. Even apart from the other uses, there is value here for judicial and political discourse. The Ten Commandments should inform the ethics of our nation. We should pray for that and pursue that discourse.

However, some have taken this too far. Theonomists have assumed that God’s purpose for Israel is in most ways still appropriate for the world today. They go well beyond applying the Ten Commandments in culture to poring through details of all of the laws of the Old Testament in order to find ways in which they remain applicable in a secular society. 

There may be room to consider this further in the coming months. But my main point is that the moral law (the Ten Commandments) should be separated from the civil and ceremonial laws. While the civil and ceremonial laws have expired, the moral law has abiding validity.

3. Map (Normative, Moral)

This use shows believers what is pleasing to God. Jesus said that he came, not to abolish the law, but fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). If he fulfills it but doesn’t abolish it, that means it still carries importance for the believer today. But we also must recognize that righteousness comes through Christ, not the law (Romans 10:4). Apart from Christ, the law is powerless. 

Before, it only condemned and cursed, but now, because we are regarded as having fulfilled that law perfectly because Christ fulfilled it in our place, it can only direct us in our Christian life. It can never make such threats as “If you don’t do your part, God won’t do His.” After all, God did “our part” through the perfect life and death of His own Son.

Michael Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom

Therefore, once a person is united to Christ by faith, the law provides a map/guide of sorts, for living a life that is honoring to God. We learn to delight in the law as David expressed numerous times in the book of Psalms. 

Christ does not promise to love us if we keep his commandments. But, because he first loved us—we then reciprocate with a love for Christ, and that love manifests itself in how we keep His commandments (John 14:15).

Imagine the growth and maturity the church would experience if we utilized—with the help of the Holy Spirit—the moral law to guide us toward obedience. If more and more people were motivated to obey the moral law of God, the result would certainly be a revival unlike any seen in this generation!


If you only have the first use of the law (as a mirror that points us to Christ), then you will never see it’s value in society or your ongoing walk with Christ. It only serves as a tool to bring conviction. 

If you only have the second use of the law (as a muzzle that restrains sin), then you will not feel the proper conviction of your own sin nor will you see any need to repent and mature. It becomes nothing more than a political tool to create a better society. We might become convinced that every courtroom needs to display a copy of them, while they are of little use anywhere else.

If you only have the third use of the law (as a map to please God), then you completely ignore the redemptive context in which it was given and its historical value in exploring moral judgments in culture. It becomes nothing more than a dead moralism.

When we properly balance all three uses of the law we are reminded of our need for the cleansing work of Christ on our behalf, we see the need for God’s moral standards in a fallen world, and we feel our ongoing need for the work of Christ in our lives.

If I were to summarize this topic not only for believers but for all of humanity, I would say this: The Ten Commandments reveal our need for Christ and His ongoing work in our lives.