Three Words about the Ten Rightly Understanding the Ten Commandments

In Catechism, Hermeneutics
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The following lesson was presented at Christ Presbyterian Church.


There is a new Mel Gibson movie out in the theaters called, “Hacksaw Ridge.” I have not seen it yet. It is based on the true story of WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss who served at Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa, a small island off the coast of Japan. When Desmond was drafted into the military, he objected – not to serving, but to bearing arms. Desmond was a Seventh Day Adventist who believed he should preserve life rather than take life based upon his understanding and personal application of the Sixth Commandment. A defining moment in Desmond’s life that perhaps helped shape his attitude toward guns and violence happened when he was a boy. His father and uncle were drunk and got into a fight. His father pulled a gun on his uncle but his mother stepped in. She called the police and told Desmond to hide the gun. After doing so, young Desmond returned just in time to see his father being loaded into a police wagon in handcuffs. Desmond believed that his father would’ve killed his uncle if his mother hadn’t stepped in. Desmond vowed that would be the last time he ever touched a gun.

His pacifist stance caused many of his fellow soldiers to distrust his loyalties and character. While praying at night, some of the guys would throw their shoes at him, making fun of him, calling him “Holy Jesus” and “Holy Joe.” His battalion commander wanted him transferred. One fellow soldier even told him that he was going to shoot him when they got in combat.

Things changed however at the ridge. Desmond became a hero. On the ridge, the Americans were pushed back, with many of them retreating back down; leaving dozens of wounded soldiers behind to face death or capture at the hands of the Japanese. Desmond, without any weapons, stayed up top to help the wounded and would then lower them down by rope to safety. In the end, he saved about 75 lives; including the life of his commander. Desmond became the first “conscientious objector” to receive a Medal of Honor.

The movie is getting fairly good reviews. And I’ll probably check it out when it hits Redbox. And I can understand why the story would be riveting; here’s a guy who wants to serve his country and fellow man in war, but doesn’t want to carry a gun. It’s amazing that he survived. It makes for a great story, and it seems a great movie. And you certainly have to respect a man who would stand by his convinction in such a terrific experience. The temptation to take up arms and defend himself on that ridge had to be incredible. I don’t know that I could have done it. Climbing that ridge, I would have been all confident….”I’m here to save lives, not take them!” And as soon as the first bullet buzzed by my ear, I would have been like, “uhhhhhh….hmmm….i wonder if ole Matthew Henry has a different take on this?” *buzzzzz* “Hey Jack, hand me that rifle, would ya?”

I don’t want to minimize this man’s great courage and heroic efforts. He did save lives, after all. But there’s that nagging question though for any serious student of the Bible…does the Sixth Commandment teach pacifism?

Thankfully, the Westminster Divines were not so careless with God’s Word. Such a position on the Sixth Commandment, while it may sound more spiritual and “deep,” in the end, is a mishandling of the Word of God. The answer they give in Question 68 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism clues us into the fact that the Divines treated this commandment with greater care and thought.

Q: What is required in the sixth commandment?
A: The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others.

To even ask this question in the first place, demonstrates a totally different approach to the 10 Commandments than many of our friends have. After all, the command is simply asking us NOT to do something. Our friends are right in saying the command itself is telling us not to take life. So, why would we even ask about what this commandment REQUIRES us to do; that is, in the positive sense? How are we getting a positive out of a prohibition? And where did the tablets of stone say anything about “requiring all lawful endeavours to preserve our life, and the life of others?”

Desmond Doss missed something. But why?

Well, there are many issues we could get into, but don’t have the time. There are many problems with SDA theology and the New Covenant Theology leanings of, say, a John Piper. For the sake of time, however, I want to touch upon three principles for approaching the Ten Commandments rightly, using the Sixth Commandment as an example of how and why people get the Sixth Commandment wrong because they fail to understand these principles.

1. Summaries

The Ten Commandments, while containing the whole of God’s moral law, are NOT the full expression of that moral law. Notice what Question 41 of the Shorter Catechism says about the 10 Commandments:

Q: Wherein is the moral law summarily comprehended?
A: The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.

It does not ask, “Where is the moral law comprehended?” Rather, where is the moral law summarily comprehended. The Ten Commandments are a SUMMARY of God’s moral Law!

John Calvin, before expositing the Ten Commandments in his institutes, states this:

There is always more in the requirements and prohibitions of the Law than is expressed in words. This, however, must be understood so as not to convert it into a kind of Lesbian code; *1* and thus, by licentiously wresting the Scriptures, make them assume any meaning that we please. By taking this excessive liberty with Scripture, its authority is lowered with some, and all hope of understanding it abandoned by others. We must, therefore, if possible, discover some path which may conduct us with direct and firm step to the will of God. We must consider, I say, how far interpretation can be permitted to go beyond the literal meaning of the words, still making it apparent that no appendix of human glosses is added to the Divine Law, but that the pure and genuine meaning of the Lawgiver is faithfully exhibited. It is true that, in almost all the commandments, there are elliptical expressions, and that, therefore, any man would make himself ridiculous by attempting to restrict the spirit of the Law to the strict letter of the words. It is plain that a sober interpretation of the Law must go beyond these, but how far is doubtful, unless some rule be adopted. The best rule, in my opinion, would be, to be guided by the principle of the commandment, viz., to consider in the case of each what the purpose is for which it was given…in each of the commandments we must first look to the matter of which it treats, and then consider its end, until we discover what it properly is that the Lawgiver declares to be pleasing or displeasing to him. Only, we must reason from the precept to its contrary in this way: If this pleases God, its opposite displeases; if that displeases, its opposite pleases: if God commands this, he forbids the opposite; if he forbids that, he commands the opposite.” *2*

With regard to prohibitions, and specifically the Sixth Commandment, Calvin goes on to state:

There is no need of proving, that when good is ordered, the evil which is opposed to it is forbidden. This every one admits. It will also be admitted, without much difficulty, that when evil is forbidden, its opposite is enjoined. Indeed, it is a common saying, that censure of vice is commendation of virtue. We, however, demand somewhat more than is commonly understood by these expressions. When the particular virtue opposed to a particular vice is spoken of, all that is usually meant is abstinence from that vice. We maintain that it goes farther, and means opposite duties and positive acts. Hence the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” the generality of men will merely consider as an injunction to abstain from all injury, and all wish to inflict injury. I hold that it moreover means, that we are to aid our neighbour’s life by every means in our power. And not to assert without giving my reason, I prove it thus: God forbids us to injure or hurt a brother, because he would have his life to be dear and precious to us; and, therefore, when he so forbids, he, at the same time, demands all the offices of charity which can contribute to his preservation.” *3*

We see now why the Divines ask and answer what they did in Question #68. It is simply not enough to just say, “Don’t Kill.” The moral principle, summarily expressed in the Sixth Commandment, also requires “all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.”

2. Context

This next principle overlaps with the first in some respects and expands it: The Ten Commandments were never intended to be separated from the rest of His revelation.

It is understandable that if you took the Sixth Commandment as written on the Tablet of Stone and ripped it out of the Bible, one could come to the same conclusion Desmond and others do.

– “Don’t kill.”
– Ok. Got it. I should never kill anyone under any circumstances.

But…the two tablets were NOT the only thing God gave Moses and Israel. Listen to Deut. 4:

he (God) declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.”

God not only gave them the “Ten Words,” but he gave them “statutes and rules” which would teach God’s people how to apply the Ten Words. This additional material helps us to understand the original intent and meaning of the Ten Words.

Think about this as you look at the first five commandments:

Commandment 1 says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This commandment concerns itself with WHO is worshiped. Yet, nowhere in this commandment alone are we told what God is. God reveals this elsewhere in Scripture.

Commandment 2 says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of” God. This commandment concerns itself with the NATURE of worship. We are to worship in Spirit. This does not negate, however, the ordinances God does establish in worship, revealed elsewhere in Scripture.

Commandment 3 says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.” Here, the MANNER of worship is addressed. God is to be feared. God is to be revered. But like the previous commandments, the proper manner in approaching God is not exhausted in this commandment.

Commandment 4 says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” This commandment addresses the WHEN of formal worship. And as we saw when studying that commandment, the day changed once Jesus resurrected. Could you get a change of day out of the mere commandment itself? No. Additional revelation informs us of that change.

Commandment 5 says, “Honour thy father and thy mother.” But what does that honor look like? And are parents the only ones for whom this applies? Again, we saw that additional revelation reveals a broader, deeper understanding of the words “father and mother.” While the commandment primarily concerns the family, it extends to all of society; regulating God’s entire social order.

One great way to look at it is this: Remember Calvin’s dilemma in the quote above? In seeking a deeper understanding of the Ten Commandments, how do we know when we are crossing the line…going too far…in adding, what he called “appendixes of human glosses” to Divine Law? This is where I believe the ceremonial and civil laws help us.

The First Table of the Law, Commandments 1-4, concern our duties to God. The ceremonial law was added, as God’s appendix, to the First Table to guide us in proper understanding and application of the moral principles that are summarized in the First Table.

Likewise, the Second Table of the Law, Commandments 5-10, concern our duties to neighbors. The civil law was then added, as God’s appendix, to this Second Table to guide us in a proper understanding and application of the moral principles summarized in that Second Table.

In other words, the ceremonial and civil laws were given to fence, if you will, our understanding of the moral law. And without those appendixes, you increase the likelihood of distorting the original intent and meaning of the Ten Commandments.

In understanding that the moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments and that additional material is supplied by God to help us understand the original intent and meaning of the Ten Words, how does that guide our understanding of the Sixth Commandment in particular?

Among other things, it would help us in understanding distinctions between unjust and just killing. It is simply not possible to take the Sixth Commandment and use it to argue a universal prohibition against the taking of any life under any circumstances. This is why people who argue on FB that a consistent “pro-life” position can not affirm death penalties or self-defense are wrong. Why do we know this? Because elsewhere in Scripture, God demanded people to kill in times of war. In regulating civil society, God issued death penalties for certain crimes. He also made provisions for self-defense. How is any of this possible with a pacifist understanding of the Sixth Commandment? Has God forgotten His moral code for Israel? Is He is contradicting Himself?

Just Killing vs Unjust Killing

Keep in mind, that the same God who said to Israel, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is the same God who told King Saul through the Prophet Samuel the following:

I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Not only did God command them to kill, but when Saul would not utterly destroy them, having spared the King of the Amalekites and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and of the lambs – in essence, all that was good – for the purpose of SACRIFICING TO THE LORD, Samuel rebuked Saul saying:

the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.” And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”

Wow. Obviously, this superficial handling of the Sixth Commandment that we see from pacifists would not have worked with God and Samuel.

Later, Samuel asks for King Agag and as the King cheerfully comes to Samuel, thinking “whew, I made it. Surely the bitterness of death is past,” Samuel takes his sword and hacks Agag to pieces before the Lord! Was this a violation of the Sixth Commandment? No.

Death Penalties

The Lord also instituted death penalties for certain crimes. Listen to Lev. 24.16-17

Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” And, next verse, “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.”

From verse 17, we see that “killing” was a crime requiring capital punishment. But note that not all killing is wrong. In the immediately preceding verse, there were times in which “killing” was commanded and sanctioned. Blasphemers were to be killed. Likewise, in verse 17 itself, it commands that “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death.” Is verse 17 self-contradictory? No. Because God makes distinctions. There are distinctions between unjust killing and just killing.

SELF-DEFENSE

God also allows for self-defense. Listen to Exodus 22:

If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.”

There are two cases here. In the first case, if someone breaks into your home at night, and you kill him, you are not held guilty of murder. You are not deserving of capital punishment. You do not need to flee to a city of refuge to preserve your life. The understanding is that at night, it is dark, and if someone has invaded your house, you may not be able to discern why they are there and what they are doing. God gives you the right to defend yourself and your family.

In the second case, it says “if the sun has risen on him,” and you kill the intruder, you are guilty of his bloodshed. The understanding is that in daytime, there is light, and you can discern the intentions of the home invader.

The distinctions between “night” and “day” are meant to draw out the reality that we may not always be able to discern what an intruder is doing. Again, God makes distinctions. We see qualifiers to the command “Thou shalt not kill.” And these qualifiers cannot be extracted from the mere words of the Sixth Commandment alone. To isolate the mere words of the Sixth Commandment from the Bible and to ignore everything else God has said is to not only distort the original intent and meaning of the Sixth Commandment, but it robs us of the very rich and practical wisdom that God gives us elsewhere, in applying the moral principle that is summarized in the Sixth Commandment.

This is why I told the guy on Facebook that he was the one that was not consistently “pro-life.” To ignore these distinctions and to ignore everything else God says about “killing”, thus distorting the original commandment, is to NOT take a Biblical “pro-life” position. And quite frankly, it is arrogant. Because what you are essentially saying to God with such an approach is that “I know better than you do. I am wiser than you.” And you’ll find yourself in Saul’s position where now even your sacrifices to the Lord, your worship, is an abomination.

Intentional vs. Unintentional Killing consequences

There are also distinctions between premediated killing and accidental. Deut. 19 even gives us an example: Suppose you were out in the forest chopping wood, and as you swing the ax, the head of the ax slips from the handle, strikes your neighbor, and he dies. This was unintentional. You had no hatred in the past for your neighbor. Purely accidental on your part. But now, your neighbor’s friends and family will possibly get upset and seek your life. What does God say about this? Does He say, “Welp. Sorry. But, you have to die at their hands now.” No. Instead, God commands Israel to create three cities of refuge (more would be added as their territory was increased), wherein the manslayer may flee and save his life from avengers.

God makes a distinction. And just in case you failed to make the distinction, God adds, “if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, the elders of the city are to take that man and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. And you are not to pity that man.”

Understand that the Ten Commandments “summarily comprehend” the moral law of God and with the ceremonial and civil law given as God’s appendixes, the moral law is to be understood in light of the WHOLE SCOPE of Scripture.

3. Spiritual

The law of God is and always has been spiritual in nature.

There is this impression by many that the Ten Commandments were only concerned with very limited, external issues of man. According to these people, the Sixth Commandment (as one example) did not originally deal with questions of the heart. It did not originally deal with issues of unjust anger, bitterness, and so on.

They argue, for example, that in Matthew 5, Jesus is either annulling the Ten Commandments and replacing them with His law, which deals more so with the inner man and his thoughts then with the mere external – or – argue that Jesus is adding this “spiritual,” inner concern to the original Law. When Jesus says, for example, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…”; these people say, “aha. See? The sixth commandment was not enough! Jesus is now concerned with the heart; our thoughts.” This mistake in approaching the Law is going to leave you bewildered as to why the confessionally Reformed said there are proactive things required of us in keeping the Sixth Commandment, even though it is worded solely as a prohibition.

The moral law of God had ALWAYS REQUIRED this inner, “spiritual,” take on the Sixth Commandment. To act as though the Sixth Commandment went no further than prohibiting the external, physical taking of life, is to not only misunderstand the Law in its original intent (which Jesus is preserving in Matthew 5) but to side with the error that many in His audience had of the Law! The irony here is that many of these people had the same faulty understanding of the Law that Dispensationalists and New Covenant Theologians have. Jesus was correcting them on that! Jesus was not annulling the moral law of God and replacing it! Jesus, in fact, was making clear that even unjust anger in your heart is a violation of the Sixth Commandment!

Again, John Calvin notes the foolishness of such superficial understanding:

We are not introducing a new interpretation of our own; we are following Christ, the best interpreter of the Law, (Matth. 5:22, 28, 44.) The Pharisees having instilled into the people the erroneous idea that the Law was fulfilled by every one who did not in external act do anything against the Law, he pronounces this a most dangerous delusion, and declares that an immodest look is adultery, and that hatred of a brother is murder. “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgment;” whosoever by whispering or murmuring gives indication of being offended, “shall be in danger of the council;” whosoever by reproaches and evil-speaking gives way to open anger, “shall be in danger of hell-fire.” Those who have not perceived this, have pretended that Christ was only a second Moses, the giver of an Evangelical, to supply the deficiency of the Mosaic Law. Hence the common axiom as to the perfection of the Evangelical Law, and its great superiority to that of Moses. This idea is in many ways most pernicious. For it will appear from Moses himself, when we come to give a summary of his precepts, that great indignity is thus done to the Divine Law. It certainly insinuates, that the holiness of the fathers under the Law was little else than hypocrisy, and leads us away from that one unvarying rule of righteousness. It is very easy, however, to confute this error, which proceeds on the supposition that Christ added to the Law, whereas he only restored it to its integrity by maintaining and purifying it when obscured by the falsehood, and defiled by the leaven of the Pharisees.” *4*

Wow, what an excellent and much-needed quote for today. The moral law of God was always concerned with the entirety of a person’s life: his intelligence and character, body and soul, public and private. The Law had always governed the understanding, will, desires, and all other powers of the soul. It has always been concerned with every thought, word, action, gesture, and relationship.

And John Calvin explains why this is the case:

At the outset, it was proved that in the Law human life is instructed not merely in outward decency, but in inward spiritual righteousness. Though none can deny this, yet very few duly attend to it, because they do not consider the Lawgiver, by whose character that of the Law must also be determined. Should a king issue an edict prohibiting murder, adultery, and theft, the penalty, I admit, will not be incurred by the man who has only felt a longing in his mind after these vices, but has not actually committed them. The reason is, that a human lawgiver does not extend his care beyond outward order, and, therefore, his injunctions are not violated without outward acts. But God, whose eye nothing escapes, and who regards not the outward appearance so much as purity of heart, under the prohibition of murder, adultery, and theft, includes wrath, hatred, lust, covetousness, and all other things of a similar nature. Being a spiritual Lawgiver, he speaks to the soul not less than the body. The murder which the soul commits is wrath and hatred; the theft, covetousness; and the adultery, lust. It may be alleged that human laws have respect to intentions and wishes, and not fortuitous events. I admit this, but then these must manifest themselves externally. They consider the animus with which the act was done, but do not scrutinize the secret thoughts. Accordingly, their demand is satisfied when the hand merely refrains from transgression. On the contrary, the law of heaven being enacted for our minds, the first thing necessary to a due observance of the Law is to put them under restraint. But the generality of men, even while they are most anxious to conceal their disregard of the Law, only frame their hands and feet and other parts of their body to some kind of observance, but in the meanwhile keep the heart utterly estranged from everything like obedience. They think it enough to have carefully concealed from man what they are doing in the sight of God. Hearing the commandments, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not steal,” they do not unsheathe their sword for slaughter, nor defile their bodies with harlots, nor put forth their hands to other men’s goods. So far well; but with their whole soul they breathe out slaughter, boil with lust, cast a greedy eye at their neighbour’s property, and in wish devour it. Here the principal thing which the Law requires is wanting. Whence, then, this gross stupidity, but just because they lose sight of the Lawgiver, and form an idea of righteousness in accordance with their own disposition? Against this Paul strenuously protests, when he declares that the “law is spiritual,” (Rom. 7:14;) intimating that it not only demands the homage of the soul, and mind, and will, but requires an angelic purity, which, purified from all filthiness of the flesh, savours only of the Spirit.” *5*

Again, a wonderful quote and much needed for today’s church. The Westminster Divines understood this. This is why when you read the Larger Catechism on what the Sixth Commandment requires, they get into issues of the heart. This is why they say that we are:

to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defence thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labour, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behaviour; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succouring the distressed and protecting and defending the innocent.”

You’ll notice, in most versions of this Catechism, that tons of Scripture references are given with each of these statements. This is rightly understanding the original intent and meaning of the Sixth Commandment, with the whole scope of Scripture guiding us. This is rightly understanding the spiritual nature of the Law. And this is rightly understanding that in the Ten Commandments, we do not have the full expression of the moral law, but summaries of the comprehensive moral demands God places on us.

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.”
– Prov 28.9

*1* “Ne sit nobis Lesbiæ regulæ,” omitted in the French.
*2* John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 436–438.
*3* ibid, 438.
*4* ibid, 436.
*5* ibid, 434–436.

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