The Decalogue Project: Discipleship and the Blessing of Meditating on God’s Law
From Editor: This article by Dr. Thomas K. Johnson (United States and Czech Republic) is an introductory chapter in the upcoming WRF/WEA book on The Decalogue and is posted here in its entirety. Dr. Thomas invites "you, as disciples and students who belong to Jesus, to join in the process of lifelong learning from our covenant God. Blessed are those who meditate on God’s law!"
Psalm 1 begins:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
Our team of scholars from six continents has invested thousands of hours meditating on God’s law on behalf of the millions of members of the body of Christ. We have not done this instead of your efforts but rather to stir you up to join us in our meditation. Our meditation on God’s law is an organic component of our discipleship to Jesus Christ, to whom we belong.
The Hebrew word translated “law” in this Psalm is Torah, which sometimes refers to the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), sometimes refers to the comprehensive teaching found in the Old Testament, and sometimes refers especially to the Ten Commandments as a focal point of Old Testament teaching. In this book we are especially meditating on God’s law as the Ten Commandments, though keeping in mind the comprehensive teaching about God, humanity, and salvation found in the entire Bible.
When Jesus was about to ascend to the Father, He told His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). This commission is comprehensive in multiple ways, not only in our destination, “all nations,” or in the mention of all three Persons of God our Sender, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but also in the command to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The comprehensive way of faith and life into which Jesus wants us to disciple all nations builds on the Old Testament Torah, the comprehensive teaching about God, humanity, and life. Discipleship requires meditating on God’s law, delighting in God’s law.
Biblically informed meditation is, I believe, quite different from the types of meditation that expect people to empty their minds. It is true that, while meditating before God, our hearts may be emptied of fear and anxiety, but then our hearts should not be left emptied; our hearts may be filled with “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). And in the next verse the apostle tells believers to think about or consider certain things. The peace of God does not lead to empty minds; it leads to thoughtfulness.
Biblical meditation or thoughtfulness includes three primary aspects: 1. The normative aspect, which includes a careful consideration of God-given norms (such as the Ten Commandments), along with the assumptions and expectations of those norms; 2. The situational aspect, which includes a careful consideration of the consequences of our choices (for which the book of Proverbs gives many illustrations); and 3. The existential aspect, which carefully considers the hearts of the people involved, questions about guilt and gratitude, faith or unbelief (for which biblical history gives many examples).
Our authors who contributed to this volume have very naturally addressed these aspects of biblical thoughtfulness, according to their diverse spiritual gifts, without me asking them to do so. For example, Glenn Davies has provided a profound assessment of the relation between faith (in grace) and God’s law, on the intersection of what I have called the normative and the existential aspects of biblical thoughtfulness. Robert Norris has very thoughtfully exposed the organic ties between idolatry and ideology, taking the normative commandment as a critique of our political situation, which is shaped by competing idolatrous ideologies. Diane Langberg has heard the heart-rending trauma of sexual abuse, too often at the hands of church leaders, from many clients in her office, driving into our minds the deep existential consequences of disobeying God’s law.
As mentioned, our contributors come from different continents; they also have different callings (pastors, theology professors, church leaders, lawyer, clinical psychologist) and belong to different churches. I do not know the church memberships of them all, but I know they represent Presbyterian, Anglican, and Reformed churches (and perhaps other churches). What they have in common is truly believing orthodox Protestant beliefs, participating in churches that use historic Protestant confessions or catechisms, and see the Ten Commandments as crucial for Christians in our era. They were brought together by Samuel Logan, who has long served the World Reformed Fellowship.
The introductory essays in the first part of the book, and the expositions of each of the Ten Commandments in the later part of the book, develop (among many other things) these four principles regarding God’s law:
- The commandments relating to God (the first four) and the commandments relating to our fellow humans (the latter six), though distinguished, belong together. Our Lord Jesus, when asked which is the greatest commandment, said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
- The Ten Commandments represent a covenant relationship. They are introduced by God’s statement: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Salvation by God’s grace is the condition for keeping the laws, not the other way around. God never said: If you keep all the commandments, you will be My people.
- Sinful actions come from the heart. This is why there are commandments forbidding invisible sin in our hearts as well as the acts coming from it – for example, “You shall not covet” – and as Jesus said about “You shall not commit adultery,” “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
- Negative language (“You shall not”) is needed in all but two (the fourth and the fifth) of the Ten Commandments, because otherwise each commandment would have to state, in total, what we must do. Freedom is protected by declaring the boundaries but not spelling out detailed instructions. Each of us must actively consider, meditate on, what we should do in each area of responsibility. This is freedom within form.
I would invite you, as disciples and students who belong to Jesus, to join in the process of lifelong learning from our covenant God. Blessed are those who meditate on God’s law!
 Psalm 1:1-2. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001). Throughout this book, Scripture is quoted from the ESV unless otherwise indicated.
 For more on this theme, see Thomas Schirrmacher, Leadership and Ethical Responsibility:
The Three Aspects of Every Decision, The WEA Global Issues Series Volume 13 (Bonn: VKW, 2013); https://iirf.eu/site/assets/files/92916/wea_gis_13_-_thomas_schirrmacher_-_three_aspects_of_every_decision.pdf.
Thomas K. Johnson, Ph.D., is Senior Theological Advisor to the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), which represents and connects over 600 million Christians in 143 countries. He also serves as WEA Special Envoy to the Vatican and as Special Envoy to Engage Humanitarian Islam. He has long been a foremost international Protestant voice on human rights and religious freedom, including numerous publications and consulting with diplomats and religious leaders from around the globe. Profile here.