Are the Ten Commandments Still Valid?
From Editor: This article by Dr. Risimati S. Hobyane (South Africa) is a chapter in the upcoming WRF/WEA book on The Decalogue and is posted here in its entirety. Rev. Hobyane argues for the currency of the Decalogue in the modern world. In the course of his argument he looks at the role of the Decalogue in the New Testament, its relationship with the work of Christ and how it is treated in selected Reformed confessions.
The importance of the Decalogue in the modern world may seem obvious, at least to normal Christians; after all, much of what we hear in the news demonstrates how ignoring those ancient commandments is wreaking havoc in the lives of individuals, families, and societies. However, the application of the Ten Commandments is being questioned among contemporary believers exactly when these words from above seem most needed. The questions among Christians about following the Decalogue are largely based on misunderstanding certain texts in the New Testament. These texts include:
- Matthew 5:17: “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.”
- Romans 6:14: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
- Romans 7:6: “But now we are released from the law. . ., so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
- Romans 8:3: “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.”
The general observation here is that a superficial reading of these texts has the potential to undermine the importance of the Decalogue. After reading the texts cited above, the central question may be: Is God’s law still important? We have heard it said, “If, according to Matthew 5:17, the Lord Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law, is it still necessary to read it and call Christians to observe it? How is it even relevant to read it during our weekly worship services?” In reaction to the writings of Cornelius Vonk, Karel Deddens (1993:88) remarked, “In recent years we have been hearing suggestions to the effect that we should trade in the reading of the Ten Commandments for other passages of Scripture in which the Christian rule of life is laid out, preferably passages drawn from New Testament admonitions.” Vonk claims that the Sinai covenant is no longer valid. Therefore, it follows to suggest that the Ten Commandments should not be read during a worship service of the New Testament church.
To be clear, this is not the view of this author. The current article aims at discussing the essentiality and importance of the Decalogue by considering three points: the treatment of the Decalogue in the New Testament; some exegetical vantage points from the Scriptures; and the stance/teaching of the traditional Protestant confessions, which provide an historical point of reference for interpreting Christian ethics. The quest here is to ensure that believers understand the importance of the Decalogue in our time.
The Treatment of the Decalogue in the New Testament
Is there teaching about the Decalogue in the New Testament? If so, how should New Testament believers view or understand it? To these questions, P. J. De Bruyn (1998:18) helpfully states that “the way the Decalogue is treated in the New Testament (Matthew 19:18-19; Romans 12:20; 13:8-9) makes it clear that it has a universal intent and meaning, in other words, that it applies to all Christians, in every part of the world, both in their relations with each other, as well as with non-Christians.” This assertion is critical for our discussion. It underscores the fact that the Decalogue, in its nature, is not time-bound but is time-directed. It is the law of God that is valid and applies to all Christians regardless of time and age.
Over and against negative views (e.g., that of Vonk highlighted above), Deddens (1993:69) points out “that we must not surrender the validity of the Ten Commandments for our time. In the whole of God’s covenantal revelation, they occupy a special place. Unlike other laws given by God in the Old Testament, they were written on two stone tablets and were kept and preserved in the Ark of the Covenant.” He further mentions that “Calvin speaks of the Ten commandments as an ‘eternal rule of justice’ which God has prescribed for human beings of all times and places as a way for them to live their lives in accordance with His will.”
Apart from one commandment (see footnote 1 regarding the Sabbath), nine of the laws found in the Decalogue are explicitly reiterated as part of the New Covenant (New Testament). This repetition underscores their importance/relevance and their binding nature for all believers, and they must be obeyed today. These laws are binding today, not because they were a part of the Old Covenant but because they are a part of the New Testament and God’s holy Word (canon). Their reiteration in the New Testament can be summarized as follows:
- Commandment 1: Exodus 20:3; reiterated in Acts 14:15
- Commandment 2: Exodus 20:4; reiterated in Acts 17:29
- Commandment 3: Exodus 20:7; reiterated in Matthew 6:9
- Commandment 4: Exodus 20:8-11; not reiterated in the NT
- Commandment 5: Exodus 20:12; reiterated in Ephesians 6:2
- Commandment 6: Exodus 20:13; reiterated in Romans 13:9; Revelation 21:8
- Commandment 7: Exodus 20:14; reiterated in Romans 13:9; Revelation 21:8; and Hebrews 13:4
- Commandment 8: Exodus 20:15; reiterated in Romans 13:9; Ephesians 4:28
- Commandment 9: Exodus 20:16; reiterated in Romans 13:9; Ephesians 4:25
- Commandment 10: Exodus 20:17; reiterated in Romans 13:9; Colossians 3:5
As the reader may notice, one New Testament verse, Romans 13:9, is referenced multiple times as reiterating commandments from the Decalogue. It merits quotation, with additional context, because of the way in which the Apostle Paul integrates love for other people with several commandments. Romans 13:8-10:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
When underscoring the importance of the Decalogue and its reading in our weekly worship meetings, Deddens (1993:70) points out that the law is also God’s Word. It is not just one of the responses of the congregation but forms part of what the Lord says to His people. He correctly concludes, “Hence the reading of the Ten Commandments makes a great deal of sense as part of the service. It gives the law the opportunity to function as the source from which we know our misery (Rom. 7:7) and also as the rule of our gratitude.”
In a world infested with greed and corruption, one cannot underscore enough the importance of the teaching of the Decalogue. For example, P. J. Buys addresses the question of bribery from the law perspective. He says, “Bribery is a phenomenon both acknowledged (Proverbs 17:8) and warned against (Proverbs 15:27) in the wisdom tradition and condemned in the Law (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19).” Modern men are warned against the act of bribery (and many other wrongdoings/sins) by the law of God.
The Decalogue and Jesus Christ in the New Testament
In His teaching, Jesus indicates that He did not come to abolish the law or the Prophets (the authority and principles of the Old Testament) but to fulfill them. This utterance cannot and should not be understood to suggest any invalidation of the law. By fulfilling, Jesus did not mean to subvert, abrogate, or annul, but to unfold them, to embody them in living form, and to enshrine them in the reverence, affection, and character of men (R. Jamieson, et al., 1997). The text in which Jesus addressed this question merits our attention, Matthew 5:17-19:
“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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the following portions of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes specific reference to several of the Ten Commandments in a way that affirms their foundational role in life. For example, in Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus says:
“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; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
We could discuss whether Jesus is stripping away a misunderstanding of the commandment to get to its original meaning or if He is making a demand of His disciples that is deeper than the original commandment. Regardless of our conclusion to that question, Jesus is clearly teaching that we must not murder.
As a second example, we can take Matthew 5:27-28, where Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again, we could debate exactly how Jesus is using the commandment that forbids adultery. Is Jesus adding a deeper dimension to the original commandment, or is He clarifying the original intent of the commandment? Regardless of the answer to this question, Jesus clearly teaches that the commandment regarding adultery is still foundational for New Testament Christians. Therefore, the Decalogue is still valid and applicable to the lives of Christians in the modern world.
Historic Protestant Confessions on the Decalogue
I belong to a family of churches that uses two historic confessions written during the Protestant Reformation to provide a professional standard for our pastors as they apply God’s Word and especially the Ten Commandments, which we are now considering. Those confessions are the Belgic Confession of 1561 (hereafter referenced as BC) and the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 (hereafter referenced as HC). The BC is divided into 37 short articles; the HC is divided into 129 questions and answers which are grouped into 52 “Lord’s Days” for convenient study each Sunday of the year. The teaching of the BC and of the HC regarding the Decalogue is very similar to the teaching found in other classical documents of the Protestant Reformation. (Our churches also use the historic Canons of Dort of 1619, but that text addresses other issues and says less about interpreting the Ten Commandments.)
Our church confessions are unequivocal on the necessity and the value of the Decalogue in the lives of believers. First, when elucidating our confession regarding the “written word of God,” BC Article 3 points out that “God, with his own finger, wrote the two tables of the law. Therefore, we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.” Unlike the ceremonial laws, which contained specific directions for the special service of the Lord among the Israelites, such as sacrifices, special clothing for the priests, and festivals, the Decalogue was meant for all times (De Bruyn: 2013:14; see also BC Article 25). The reference and acknowledgement of the holiness and divine nature of the Decalogue by the BC is special (cf. 2 Peter 1:21) and without doubt highlights the value it places on it and its relevance and applicability to the modern world.
Secondly, in HC Lord’s Day 2, many things are said regarding the importance of the Decalogue, including its value and binding, pedagogical nature. We confess that the law is significant in our lives as believers. Lord’s Day 2, Question 3 asks: “How do you come to know your misery?” Answer: “The law of God tells me.” The reference to the term “law of God” points back to the Decalogue, as outlined in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5. The Scripture further elucidates in Romans 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Without going into the exegetical details of the texts indicated, we can point out that the Apostle Paul broadly and deeply lays the foundations of his teaching of the great doctrine of justification by free grace and not justification before God by obedience to the law (R. Jamieson, et al., 1997). Nonetheless, the text puts forward the importance of the law in the lives of believers, that is, “for through the law comes knowledge of sin.” First, the law shows us where we go wrong. Because of the law, we know that we are helpless sinners and that we must come to our Lord Jesus Christ for mercy. Second, the moral code revealed in the law can serve to guide our actions by holding up God’s moral standards. The message should be clear in this regard: Yes, we do not earn salvation by keeping the law, but we do please God when our lives conform to His revealed will for us (see also the Life Application Study Bible on these texts).
It suffices to point out that Lord’s Day 2 provides us with the answer regarding the significance of the Law of God (the Decalogue) in the lives of believers in the modern world. Furthermore, the third major part of the HC, Lord’s Day 33, Question 91, reminds us of the relevance of the Law in our lives as believers. Part of our gratitude toward the Lord for our salvation is our obligation to do that which is good, namely: “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law (Leviticus 18:4) and is done for his glory and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition (1 Corinthians 10:31).” Notice again how the reference to God’s Law has a central role in the confessional teaching of the church in which I am a member.
From the above highlighted points on the teaching of our confessions regarding the Decalogue, one can conclude without hesitation that the law of God is not obsolete but is still relevant and applicable in the lives of believers today. The Decalogue (with the exception of the Sabbath law) is the Word of God and must be obeyed and observed.
This article has aimed at discussing the importance of the Decalogue in the modern world by looking first at the way in which the New Testament treats and reiterates the Decalogue, with the exception of one of the commandments. Second, a brief discussion has been provided regarding the question of the fulfilment of the law by Jesus Christ in the New Testament and how it impacts Christians in the modern world. Third, we have looked at selected historic Protestant confessions and how they approach the teaching of the Decalogue. In all these discussions, one must conclude that the Decalogue is the revealed Word of God, which is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Buys, Phillipus J. (Flip). (2019). “Corruption, Bribery, African Concepts of God, and the Gospel.” Unio cum Christo, 5(2), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.35285/ucc5.2.2019.art10.
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible Commentary: 21st century edition. (Rev. ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd ed. D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer, eds. 1970). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL., USA: InterVarsity Press.
De Bruyn, Paulus Jacobus. (2003). The Ten Commandments. Potchefstroom: Potchefstroom Theological Publications.
Deddens, Kavel. (1993). Where Everything Points to Him. Michigan: Inheritance Publications.
Easton, M. G. (1893). In Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature (pp. 591–592). New York: Harper & Brothers.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1996, c. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., and Brown, D. 1997. A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
Life Application Study Bible. 2013. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House.
The New King James Version. 1996, c. 1982. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 535). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
 With regard to the lack of reiteration of the Sabbath Law in the New Testament, M. G. Easton (1893: 591–592) helpfully says, “If any change of the day has been made, it must have been by Christ or by his authority. Christ has a right to make such a change (Mark 2:23–28). As Creator, Christ was the original Lord of the Sabbath (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:10). It was originally a memorial of creation. A work vastly greater than that of creation has now been accomplished by him, the work of redemption. We would naturally expect just such a change as would make the Sabbath a memorial of that greater work.
“True, we can give no text authorizing the change in so many words. We have no express law declaring the change. But there are evidences of another kind. We know for a fact that the first day of the week has been observed from apostolic times, and the necessary conclusion is, that it was observed by the apostles and their immediate disciples. This, we may be sure, they never would have done without the permission or the authority of their Lord.
“After his resurrection, which took place on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), we never find Christ meeting with his disciples on the seventh day. But he specially honored the first day by manifesting himself to them on four separate occasions (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:36, 13–35; John 20:19–23). Again, on the next first day of the week, Jesus appeared to his disciples (John 20:26).”
 Phillipus J. (Flip) Buys, “Corruption, Bribery, African Concepts of God, and the Gospel,” Unio cum Christo (2019): 10.
 The concept of “law” in this context should be understood to refer to the three categories of law, i.e., the ceremonial law (related specifically to Israel’s worship – Leviticus1:2-3, and its purpose was to point forward to Jesus Christ and is no longer necessary after Jesus’ death and resurrection), the civil law (applied to daily living in Israel – Deuteronomy 24:10-11; these laws do not apply to our modern society and culture, but the principles behind the commands are timeless and should guide our conduct), and the moral law (this refers to the Decalogue. It is the direct command of God, and it requires strict obedience. It reveals the nature and will of God, and it still applies today. Jesus obeyed the moral law completely.) (Life Application Study Bible. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House.).
 See footnote 1 for M. G. Easton on change to the first day of the week from the seventh day.
Risimati Hobyane, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the School for Ancient Language and Text Studies, North-West University in Potchefstroom, Republic of South Africa. He is an expert in New Testament and Septuagint studies. He is an individual member of the World Reformed Fellowship and also a member of the Board of Directors of the WRF.