Some things never change. The first and best of unchanging things is our holy Creator God, whose “righteous judgments endure forever” (Psalm 119:160). Because God never changes (Malachi 3:6), neither do his standards of justice and righteousness. The precepts of God’s revealed moral laws stand as the ultimate measure of the righteousness of any laws enacted by man. However, due to the effects of man’s sinful rebellion, this seemingly obvious truth is far from universally accepted. It is the inclination of sinful man to reject what he knows to be true about God. To provide a clear expression of his standard for morality, God inscribed the Ten Commandments in stone and gave them to the nation of Israel.
“God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). As such, man is by nature a rational and moral being. The second person of the Trinity, the eternal Logos, the very Wisdom of God, “gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9). This light consists of certain knowledge written on the heart of every human being, which includes at least some knowledge of God, and man’s responsibility toward him (Romans 1:18-21). This innately-known sense of morality, which stems from man’s being created in God’s image, is unarguably binding on man’s conduct, and it condemns all who suppress and defy it (Romans 2:14-15).
Since the fall of Adam, the natural tendency of mankind is toward sin, a rejection of God’s moral standards.
“As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10-12).
Despite what they know to be true, human beings, tainted with and controlled by sin, instinctively rebel against the God who made them. In doing so, they set themselves up as masters of their own destiny and arbiters of their own morality.
Man’s innate knowledge of God’s moral law, while sufficient enough to condemn sinners, is insufficient when it comes to serving as a concrete standard by which man may objectively judge the actions of individuals or the laws of a society. This is because a system of ethics—what men ought to do—cannot logically be derived from an observation of what sinful men actually do. Gordon H. Clark makes this point of logic clear:
“No matter how carefully or how intricately one describes what men do, or what the provisions of nature are, or how natural inclinations function, it is a logical impossibility to conclude that this is or is not what men ought to do. The is never implies the ought” (102).
Thus, a verbally revealed standard is necessary if there is to be any clear, objective ethical direction to be discovered in this fallen world. The Bible, God’s revealed Word, provides such a standard for moral law, exemplified in the Ten Commandments given to Israel.
The preeminence of God, and thus the illegitimacy of idolatry and blasphemy, was known by Adam by the very fact of his being created by God. It is evident from the story of Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:20-27 that it was understood to be right to honor one’s parents. The principles of rest and regular, specific worship (Genesis 2:3; 4:3-7), as well as direction against murder (Genesis 9:6), adultery (Genesis 2:24), theft (21:25), deception (Genesis 20:9), and covetousness (Genesis 3:6) were all also known before Moses received the tablets of stone. Such principles summarize the unchanging moral law of God. John Calvin also connects the innately-known law with God’s moral law when he writes, “the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men” (ii:664).
One of the purposes of the Ten Commandments, written by God in stone at Mount Sinai, and given as a formal covenant with the nation of Israel, was to serve as a summary of God’s perpetual moral standards. These commandments did not introduce new moral obligations, but rather encapsulated the already-known duties of man toward God. These ten general, basic commands can be divided into two “tables” or categories, which are described in the New Testament when Christ summed up the requirements of the law as loving God and loving neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). The first four concern man’s duty toward God, while the latter six concern man’s duty toward fellow human beings. While the specific wording of the Ten Commandments may only be immediately relevant to the covenantal context of Israel in the Old Testament, the principles are just as eternal and binding upon all mankind as the moral law written on every man’s conscience.
The Westminster Confession of Faith distinguishes between the moral law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments, the ceremonial law of God, and the judicial laws given to Israel (XIX:i-v). Because the judicial/case laws were specific to Israel’s covenantal context, today’s nations are not bound to implement them. John W. Robbins cites Israel’s cities of refuge as one example of specific instruction that was relative to the time and place of the original recipients (Robbins 30). Even the language and examples provided in the Ten Commandments are tailored to the original audience. In the metropolitan areas of the United States, one may not be in danger of coveting his neighbor’s donkey, but he may be far more susceptible when it comes to his neighbor’s car. This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the principle of “general equity” (XIX:iv). The judicial laws, as written, may not bind Christians today, but the moral principles behind them still apply in equitable ways.
We have seen that the Ten Commandments serve as general summary statements of the unchanging moral standards of God which are innately known by every human being created in the image of God. If governing authorities are to function as ministers of God to suppress evil (Romans 13:1-6), they must have a standard for judgment that defines good and evil. To this end, there can be no greater standard or example than that which is provided by God himself. In the words of John W. Robbins, “The Old Testament…is the oldest textbook in political freedom… Because the Bible is divinely revealed information, it furnishes us with the principles we need to defend a free society.”
Much more could be said about the purposes of God’s Law as a covenant made with Israel, and Christ’s fulfillment of the Law on behalf of his elect, but these topics are beyond the scope of the present examination. However, it is good to remember the words of the Son of God, who said,
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18).
A Christian view of the law is therefore one that does not set aside the moral obligations of the law, yet always looks to Christ as the one who perfectly kept and fulfilled the law in the sight of God on our behalf.
Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, instructed the people of Israel to carefully observe all the laws God had commanded. He explained that the surrounding nations would see the justice of those laws and marvel at the wisdom of Israel (Deuteronomy 4:5-6). This is the attitude Christians must take when seeking wisdom from Scripture regarding moral conduct. “And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:8). The wisdom of Israel was found in God’s Word, and Christians today should not hesitate to turn to Scripture for instruction in righteousness in all areas of life.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.
Clark, Gordon H. “Fruits of the Reformation in Philosophy and Ethics.” Essays on Ethics and Politics. Jefferson: The Trinity Foundation, 1992. 99-103. Print.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1990.
Robbins, John W. “The Sine Qua Non of Enduring Freedom.” Freedom and Capitalism: Essays on Christian Politics and Economics. Unicoi: The Trinity Foundation, 2006. 25-46. Print.
The Westminster Confession of Faith. Lawrenceville: Committee for Christian Education and Publications, 1990.