Ligon Duncan – Do the Ten Commandments Still Apply Today?

From the sermon “Introduction to the Ten Commandments“:

One last thing.  What about the gigantic issue, “Do the Ten Commandments still apply?” There are many people who do not believe that the Ten Commandments still apply today.  They want to know,  “Why should we obey the commands?  Why are the Ten Commandments still relevant?  Why are they still authoritative in our day and time?”  There are many good answers to that question, but let me just mention a few things.

First, we have to remember that the Ten Commandments themselves are God’s Law.  As God’s Law, they are a reflection of His character, and they are unique.  Whereas, some of God’s Law was written on parchment or scrolls, the Ten Commandments were written by God with His own finger on stone.  Furthermore, they were spoken by God to the children of Israel at Sinai in Exodus 20, and they are clearly distinguished as something that is permanent and reflective of the character of God and meant for all ages.  The old Jewish rabbis used to remind people that The Commandments were given to Israel in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel, so we see that they were meant for all nations and not just for Israel.  And that’s  a very important point to remember.  God gave all sorts of indications that these commands were unique and that they were applicable to all times and peoples and places.

Secondly, because these commands are a reflection of the character of God, and the character of God does not change, and He Himself is the ultimate pattern of what is good and right and holy, it’s obvious that what is good and right and holy does not change.  So, when we move into the New Testament era, what is good and right and holy is the same as was in the Old Testament era with regard to the moral law.  Now, the civil law may change, and the ceremonial law may change, because God gave that law to specific situations and circumstances and purposes; but not His moral law.  His moral law forever binds all.  Therefore, since the moral law is based on who He is and it’s based on His character and His character doesn’t change, then righteousness is the same in the New Testament as it is in the Old Testament.

Thirdly, we have to remember that Jesus Himself emphasized that He did not come to abrogate the Law.  Now, in Matthew 5:17-19, when He stresses this, He’s especially talking about the authority of the whole of the Old Testament, but we also learn from the book of Galatians that Jesus was born under the Law and that He kept the Law.  So, Jesus, by His own example was faithful in keeping the whole of the moral Law of God.  Since we are to be conformed to His image, God says in the New Testament, and He kept the Law, then we will need to keep the Law if we are really going to be like His image.

Another thing to realize is how often the New Testament references the Ten Commandments as authoritative rules for Christian living. In Ephesians 6 and Romans 13, even when he’s speaking to congregations that are predominantly Gentile Christian, not Jewish Christian, Paul will quote the commandments.  In Romans 13 he’ll say, “Love is the fulfilling of the Law.” And he’ll tell those Gentile Christians to fulfill the Law.  In Ephesians 6, he’ll quote the command to “honor father and mother.”  And he’ll quote it to a congregation that is predominantly Gentile, and expect them to obey it.  James in James 2 will talk about the “royal law” and expect us to fulfill God’s Law, and so there are numerous passages in the New Testament that make it clear that believers are to obey the Law.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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7 comments

  1. On the first point, all Israel’s laws were given in the wilderness. The location in which they were given is no indication of their universal nature. Neither is the fact that God wrote them on stone. Obviously that set them apart from the rest of the law, but I’m not sure that’s a valid basis for claiming universality.

    On the second point, the moral/civil/ceremonial distinction is contrived and unsustainable. The entire law is moral (this is seen most clearly in the clean/unclean mindset which pervades the entire law).

    On the third point, the Ten Commandments are nowhere repeated as a whole. Notably, the fourth commandment is absent from the New Testament. In many cases, whenever a command is referenced in the NT, and especially when Jesus is referencing it, it is not the command as given that was affirmed, but the intention or the heart of the command.

    With all that said, I think the strongest argument in favor of the Ten Commandments is that they reflect God’s character. Of course that applies to all God’s commands, but particularly to these ten which are clearly set apart by God Himself.

    The Ten Commandments, properly understood, epitomize the condemning nature of the Law. Within the Ten Commandments is far more than enough to condemn any human. It is in the Ten Commandments that we see what it means to have a true relationship to God, and a true relationship with others–and where we see ourselves so completely depraved because we cannot live up to the standard.

    Much more needs to be said… but there’s a start.

    1. Hi Gabriel…good stuff here.

      First point: I think I’m in agreement with you here. I don’t think you can make an airtight argument for their universal applicability on the basis of where the Law was given or the uniqueness of its production. However, I think you’re going a bit too far in saying that these give us no indication without justifying your position.

      Second point: again, I think you’re going to need to find some way to show your work here. I don’t think anyone – even Ligon himself – would deny that these categories were contrived, strictly speaking. And clearly these are sustainable categories, judging from the fact that they have been regarded as biblically-warranted by centuries of Christian saints, including pastors and scholars. You may not find them helpful, but I think it’s going too far to dismiss them (which is how I read your statement; perhaps I misunderstood?).

      Third point: granted, but it seems as though you are making an inference from silence, which I would expect you would agree is not the strongest of foundations to build an argument. In response, I would also point out that we also don’t find the Ten Commandments nullified as a whole, but if Jesus’ words in Matt 5:17-18 mean anything then the entire Decalogue has to be considered as included in those things which He did not come to abolish but to fulfill, right? I’m not clear on the second point here. It seems to me like what you’re arguing for is the separating of obedience from the intent to obey.

      Next paragraph: I need you to clarify what you said here. You see the the Law’s reflection of God’s character as the strongest argument in favor of what about the TC? In favor of obeying them? I don’t disagree with you that that’s an important factore, I would think however that the strongest argument is that God gave them in time and space to His people to be obeyed.

      Looking forward to your response.

  2. I guess I’ll have to check out the rest of the sermon to hear what he thinks about the Sabbath and how it applies to Christians today… but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Sabbath.

  3. #1: it seems to me that if we’re going to determine which OT commands are still valid today, the location and materials used are somewhat irrelevant. The fact that the TC were written on stone does not contain inherent significance in terms of applicability. Lots of ancient law codes were written on stone but that was intended more for permanence in their society than universal applicability.

    #2: It’s actually quite simple. The tri-fold distinction is nowhere made in Scripture. No one can make a biblical case that any biblical author thought in terms of those distinctions. When NT authors refer to the law, they referred to the entire Torah. I recognize the distinction has a long history, but so does infant baptism… And the two are actually related. The tri-fold distinction is helpful when making lists of the law, but unhelpful for exegesis because it is imposing a post-biblical theological system on the text.

    #3: Maybe it’ll help if I restate my point. If we obeyed the TC as they were originally understood, we would be falling short of God’s law because we know that adultery, in God’s eyes, is far more than a physical act. But the OT didn’t specify that. So it’s not the TC from Exodus 20 that we are to obey, but God’s standards.

    What I meant to say is that God’s character is the strongest argument for the universal application of the TC. When fully applied (including the NT expansion) the commands are universal in nature.

    That God gave them in time and space seems to me only helpful if accompanied by many other arguments. God gave many commands in time and space which we would do well not to obey.

  4. Simplified – Concerning the new testament, the commandments were written on our hearts. The holy Spirit was descended and is what works in us to turn from our sins and gain wisdom not to return to them.

    Commandments Simplified – The first 3 commandments reflects God’s character, the last 6 reflects our character, and the 4th is the bond and relationship between God and us.

    Sabbath simplified – the 7th day of creation (before the Ten Commandments) was created for man to spend with God and not focus on the world.

    I’m not sure why so many try to argue that the Ten Commandments were nullified. If we follow them to our best human ability, we would avoid most, if not all, sin. Which I am 100% sure, is the point in the first place.

    I would say those who believe the Ten Commandments are nullified may just want the control(ability to sin without judgement) of their own lives and may feel guilt(form of work of Holy Spirit) if admitted that the have not been nullified.

    Read and reflect on these scriptures:
    Mat. 19:17-21
    John 14:15, 21
    Mat. 22:37-40

    The Fulfillment of the Law
    Mat. 5:17-20 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

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