April 3, 2012

The Ten Commandments and non-believers

by Jesse Johnson

A few weeks ago I made a presentation at the Shepherd’s Conference with this point: when Gentiles die, they are not going to be judged based upon the standard seen in the 10 commandments. I made much of the concept that when both the Old Testament and the New Testament use the word “law,” it generally does not mean simply the imperatives in Exodus-Deuteronomy, and it almost never means “the ten commandments.”

As Mike explained quite well yesterday, the laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai were given to Moses and then Israel entered into a covenant with God to keep them. Gentiles were never held to that standard. Gentiles in Egypt, for example, will not be judged for working on a Saturday. My main point was simply that Gentiles are on their way to hell not for violating the Ten Commandments, but for sinning. And sin is not a falling short of the Ten Commandments, but is rather an action contrary to God’ nature.

I grant that there is much overlap between those two categories. Murder is falling short of the divine standard, and it also happens to be a violation of the sixth commandment. Adultery is sinful because it is contrary to the law of God. Gentiles know this because it is revealed in their conscience, while Jews had an even more sure means of recognizing that sin; the seventh commandment.

But attempts to apply the Ten Commandments to non-believers today have never been hermeneutically convincing to me. The most obvious example is the Sabbath. When you are evangelizing, does it even make sense to ask someone if they have ever broken the Sabbath by working on a Saturday? (or, is it a Sunday?). Did they ever rescue the neighbor’s cat from a tree on the weekend?

And the limitations posed by the fourth commandment is applicable to some of the other nine as well. People often point out that 9 of the 10 are repeated in the NT. Even if that is true (I have third and fourth commandment issues with that stat), that very approach demonstrates that the NT is the authority for Christian ethics. If you grant that the repition of a commandment in the NT makes it binding on believers (or unbeleivers, as the case may be), then you are granting that the moral authority is not in the Ten Commandments–or other parts of the Mosaic Law–but in the Law of Christ.

The third commandment also shows the limits of the attempt to catapult the Ten Commandments from Sinai to suburbia. Taking Yahweh’s name in vain is not something you do when you hit your thumb with a hammer and sound like a sailor. Should a person use God’s name as a curse word? Obviously not; it is sinful, disrespectful, blasphemous, and simultaneously ignorant and arrogant.

Yet it is all those apart from the third commandment.

The third commandment bans the “taking of Yahweh’s name in vain.” The word generally translated “to take” is nahsa, and it has as its main meaning to “lift up.” Vain simply means in an empty way. So the third commandment is a prohibition to the Israelites. They are not allowed to lift up the name of Yahweh while living an empty and godless life. If they are going to identify themselves as Israelites, then they better honor the God of Israel with their life. If they lift his name up like a flag over their army, then their army better be sanctified.

With that understanding, it would be nonsense to suppose an Egyptian could take Yahweh’s name in vain while calling himself a worshiper of Pharaoh and the river gods. But if an Egyptian soldier defects and converts, like the slave in 1 Samuel 30, then his newfound life should match his newly minted confession. But other than the gentile convert, the third commandment obviously is limited by nationality in the OT. It makes sense in a nationalistic context, where people are circumcised to express their covenant relationship with God.

I suppose that the truth of the third commandment does translate by analogy to the church age. If someone claims to follow Christ with their lips, but denies him with their life, then by analogy they are in violation of the third commandment. But they have  bigger problems than that. They are in danger of being delivered over to Satan (1 Tim 1:20), dying every time they take communion (1 Cor 11:30), and they are living in rebellion against the commands in the NT. By living in open sin, they are scorning the Lord who bought them, and making a mockery of the Law of liberty. The judge is at the door though, and the parable of the wheat and the tares speaks to these people. To make their disobedience a third commandment issue sort of misses the point.

This is true with many other commandments as well. The prohibition against “bearing false witness against your neighbor” has specific Mosaic connection to the way Israelites were to settle disputes. It has more to do with land markers and cities of refuge than asking people if they have ever told a white lie. Listen: lying is wrong because God is the author of truth. He despises lying lips, will cast liars to hell, and any lie is an attack on his goodness, as well as the doctrine of providence. This is why your conscience torments you when you distort the truth. To tell a non-believer today that he is going to hell for violating the ninth commandment minimizes his sin by making it contrary to a commandment, rather than contrary to the creator.

Idolatry is another example. The second commandment tells the Israelites that they are not to make any image of God, and they are not to worship anything from the quarry, the blacksmith, or the lumber yard. In the NT, idolatry is one of the marks of the absolute folly of rejecting God (Rom 1:23). People who worship idols confess they are fools and that they hate the real God. Their conscience (as well as common sense) reveals this to them, and they will be judged for mocking God—and this is completely independent of the second commandment.

When Paul speaks the Athenians in Acts 17, he mocks their idolatry. He compares them to people groping in the dark for a light, and Paul claims to know their chief God, whom they are unable to simply name. He is certainly confronting their idolatry, but he is not rebuking them for violating the second commandment. He is confronting sin without brining out Mosaic law.

Other writers take the theme of idolatry and apply it to believers. Worshiping anything other than God is considered idolatry. Allowing anything to lure you away from the first love of Jesus Christ is insane, and leads to spiritual suicide. If Jesus is the author of life, and if every good and perfect gift comes from above, then he demands our absolute allegiance and in exchange will demonstrate his absolute sufficiency. The temptation to look for satisfaction somewhere else is alluring (our hearts are idol factories, after all), and the NT warns believers away from this spiritual insanity.

But even this commandment shows that the use of the Ten Commandments in evangelism is often a wrong approach. A person who confesses to loving something more than God is not confessing to having broken the second commandment. They are confessing to exchanging the glory of God for a lie, and worshiping a God of their own making. The second commandment will be the least of their worries when they are faced with the Son of Man coming back in the clouds, wielding a sword.

I think the ten commandments have an almost infinite depth to them. There are heart issues that are addressed so sucienctly, and they serve as an introduction to the rest of the Torah. God’s moral law transcends them, of course, but studying them always shows you how holy God is, and how wise is law is. But this profound truth is not helped by attempts to apply those ten commandments in ways that don’t honor the orriginal authorial intent.

Contrary to what my previous posts may lead you to think, I do sometimes use the ten commandments in evangelism. But I recognize that I use them because they are succinct, and because often Americans recognize them as valid expressions of God’s law. I use them with the understanding that they are being used by analogy, and that I am not using them the way God gave them, but rather I am borrowing the moral principles they give (which are true, as they are reflective of God’s transcendent moral law) and using them to confront sin.

But I know that people are on their way to hell for rejecting God, and specifically for rejecting God in the person of Jesus Christ…NOT for breaking the laws given to Israel on Mt. Sinai. People are judged by God, and the standard is not ten-fold, but singular. Has their life fallen short of the glory of God as revealed in their conscience, and in the person of Jesus Christ?

The standard is perfection, and the only way for salvation is through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God opened up the door for eternal life by taking our sins and imputing them to Jesus. The sins which were transferred from us to him include every thing we have ever done that falls short of complete holiness. To limit God’s moral law to the Ten Commandments is to lower the bar in a way that is just simply not seen in the evangelism portrayed in the New Testament.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Great article Jesse,

    Would you be able to elaborate further on your second last paragraph if possible. How does Rom 2:15 come into play (or does it) with the pygmy tribe in notyetreachedland?

    • Good question Matt. CS Lewis has a long section in Mere Christianity about this, that I totally agree with. An example of God’s common grace is that their consciences bear witness to them about the sins of murder, stealing, adultery. Lewis notes that they may disagree on how many wives to have, but they all agree that they have to have wives.

      So in that sense, they are on their way to hell for rejecting God’s standard, which we see personified in Jesus. Does that make sense?

  • David sager

    Jesse, I have not read all the blogs lately on this topic and do need to but how would you counter the argument that Jesus used the Ten Commandments when he encountered the rich young ruler?

    • Jmv7000

      Wasn’t the rich, young ruler Jewish?

      • David sager

        Jmv7000, that is a good point that I had not considered. Thanks!

    • He was the leader of Jewish synagogue. I totally agree with MacArthur when he points out that after Jesus used the Law, which the ruler lied and said he kept, Jesus changed gears, set the law aside, and made the point that your eternal destiny is determined by what you do with Jesus, not what you do with the Law.

  • after reading this it would appear that you have not understood the Law of God (His Prescriptive Law) nor the three uses of the Law nor that the Decalogue is a summary of God’s Laws (think reader’s digest version). It also appears you have not read Turretin, Chemnitz, Bucer nor Calvin or Luther on the use of the Law for both the unregenerate and the regenerate. I would seem to me that you need to reattend some seminary courses for a refresher on the use of the Law in both evangelism and in building up the regenerate.

    • Jgilcher


      First, could you provide some verses that explain what you mean by the “three uses of law”? Are you thinking of texts like Romans 3:20 & 1 Timothy 1:9, etc.?

      Second, how would the Decalogue being a summary of God’s laws argue definitively against anything Jesse was saying, since the Law was given in the Mosaic Covenant and was intended for Israelites under that covenant?

      Third, you can’t assume Jesse hasn’t read the theologians you mentioned. All those men you cited would be loosely categorized as “replacement theologians” (or supersessionists) with regard to their understanding of the church and Israel (i.e., the church having replaced Israel). It’s not that Jesse probably hasn’t read them, but probably he disagrees (as I do) with their foundational starting point that the church has replaced Israel and that we are under the law. Because in the end, Nancy, how do you know absolutely sure that Turretin, Chemnitz, Bucer and the other are correct in their understanding of this issue? They all breathed the air of “replacement theology” and were working from that standpoint that the church has replaced Israel.

      Jesse is obviously (if I can speak for him) working from the standpoint that Christians are not under the Mosaic law (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:20, etc.) and that the church has not replaced Israel and that the law was for those under the Mosaic Covenant and is not for us.

      Fourth, where would you go in Scripture to back your strong statement that the law is to be used in evangelism? Is this really so strongly stated in Scripture that you would feel the need to recommend to Jesse to go back and take some more seminary courses? Is this commanded in Scripture as an indispensible ingredient for effective evangelism? (I’m not saying you can’t use it, but that only it doesn’t seem like a mandate upon believers).

      I think the bottom line issue is Nancy that your view on this and Jesse’s view on this (which is mine as well) is a bit like a “Venn diagram” that does not intersect (remember those things from high school?). In other words, it would seem that you and Jesse are tackling this issue from completely different hermeneutical stand points that do not “intersect.” And I believe, until you understand this foundational difference, there will continue to be frustration on your part to see Jesse’s perspective. Does that make sense?

      Thanks for your time.

  • Peter Keay

    Typo: “brining out”

  • Scott C

    I agree with your general assessment here, but I wonder if you have overstated the case. I thought for sure you would treat Rom. 2:12-16 on a subject like this. I think the 10 Commandments can serve as a useful way to bridge the gap between the Law of Moses as it applies to Israel and the Law as it is written on the heart of human beings. It is a good conversation starter because a lot of unchurched people are still at least vaguely familiar with the 10 Commandments.

    • I agree Scott. I think there is much practical use in the ten commandments for precisely that purpose. I tried to hit that towards the end.

  • Larry

    Jesse, I think I see what you’re saying. It seems as if you are taking the literal side of the ten commandments relative to the nationality, customs, culture, etc of the Israelites. Whereas, “bearing false witness” was specific to, as you said, “Having more to do with land markers and cities of refuge than asking people if they have ever told a white lie.”

    However, I do not think it is un-biblical to relate “bearing false witness” as lying, to point out telling a lie, makes one a liar. Without being deceptive, clever, baboozeling, or hoodwinking a person…. it awakens their conscience to, “Hmmm…if God judges me on the basis of sinning by lying, stealing, lusting, rejecting his Son, or WHATEVER else, I’m in danger of eternity in the lake of fire.

    With that in mind, I side with Jesus to go beyond the literal and deal with the figurative in the mind as well. Committing adultery had to be a physical act, (under the Law) but Jesus condemned it as a mental act. So in essence, the ten commandments (in spirit) work to condemn sin.

    • I totally agree Larry. And Jesus did that with more than just the ten commandments too, right? Much of the Law speaks to heart issues. Obviously God is not concerned with sacrifice as much as obedience, or offerings as much as a contrite heart.

      • Larry

        Jesse, you’re far too kind to some of these “responders.” Lol!

        But the “virtual world,” opens one up to demonic attack! Lol!

  • Steve

    Let me help you Jesse…”But attempts to apply the Ten Commandments to non-believers today have never been hermeneutically convincing to me. The most obvious example is the Sabbath.” OK, well how about Hebrews 4:9 that says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also urested from his works as God did from his”. It is obvious that the 4th commandment is still in effect, as the writer of Hebrews declares it to be as Sabbath rest in Christ.
    Jesus, Himself, used the law in witnessing. The Rich Young Ruler was a good example. He might have been a Jew but maybe not. Isn’t that a good argument against your position that it really did not matter in the Gospel account whether he was Jewish or not? Jesus took him through the law and told him to be perfect. This is the basis for the idea of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. For anyone who subscribes to this, there must be a judicial and forensic reason for someone to be declared righteous. Someone had to pay the penalty for sin, as John says in 1 John 3:4 that sin is transgression of the law. This penalty is judicial in nature as God is called “Lawgiver and Judge”. Unless you deny this doctrine, then you have to agree that there were actual laws broken and not just people “falling short of the glory of God”. Really….what does that mean to an unbeliever. Have you tried that one with an unbeliever when witnessing? Please. How are they to be held accountable(Rom 3:19-20) if they don’t even know what holiness entails and what the demands of God specifically are for them? Just telling an unbeliever that he is a sinner is unclear, unfair, unbiblical and a waste of time. Sin to them could be that they don’t love themselves enough.

    Perhaps you could be helped by the teaching of John MacArthur, who says the 10 Commandments are in force for the unbelievers today. You can look this up in his study Bible, if you care to. Otherwise, you can listen to the message given by Richard Mayhue given at the Shepherds Conference. His message explained that the 10 Commandments are definitely for the unbelievers, as well as the believers, today.

    And just a note. Your Dispensational take on this subject has finally convinced me that Covenant Theology is the most Biblical position to take. I had been struggling with both positions, as certain aspects of the Dispensational hermeneutic (like this) have given me much pause. I can do more than just pause now….I can confidently reject it. Thanks.

    • Jmv7000

      Steve, what does Romans 1:19-21 teach?

    • Eric Davis


      Are you saying that Hebrews 4:9 indicates the the Saturday-rest command from Exod 20 is still in effect today? If so, you’ll want to re-examine the context there. The whole discussion revolves around a warning in Heb 3:12-19 to make sure the audience repents and not make the Israelite error of unbelief. The OT Sabbath is used as an illustration, pointing towards that rest we receive by way of salvation in Christ. There’s nothing in that passage which indicates it should be considered operative as it was for Israel. It’s just an illustration to emphasize, not a violation of observing a Saturday, but failing to repent. And neither do you see 1 instance of a NT writer calling anyone out for failing to observe the Sabbath.

      Also, using the phrase “falling short of the glory of God” is certainly valid. That is what it means to sin. “Falling short of the glory of God” is the over-arching, and most succinct way to say that they have committed idolatry or lied or not loved God as they must, etc, and so capture in a phrase the essence of their violation. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter what that “mean[s] to an unbeliever,” b/c they have objectively sinned. Now, of course, w/ an unbeliever, we would go on to explain what that phrase means, just like Paul did in Rom 3:10-18, but their condemnation is failure to glorify God.

    • Thanks for your desire to help me Steve. I need as much of it as I can get.

      I get what you are saying about the Sabbath. In fact, that is why I have never been a fan of saying things like “The fourth commandment is the only non-moral commandment of the ten.” It is obviously moral! And, I’ve always been puzzled by people saying it is not repeated in the NT. Of course it is! Right in Hebrews. It has been fulfilled by Christ and the principle behind the words in stone is that you should not work for your salvation. Amen. So I think you are I are (strangely enough) more on the same team when it comes to the fourth commandment than you may think.

      • Ken

        I believe you are 100% correct in your assessment of the Ten Commandments, and how – by analogy – we can legitimately use them in evangelism. I believe you strike the perfect balance there. Well done!
        But wow! After your previous comments about the 10 Commandments, this response surprises and confuses me. While the concept of “Sabbath rest” is referenced in Heb. 4, I see no command or imperative to observe the Sabbath there. The term is a noun – not an imperative verb.
        Now, you violate the context of Heb. 3-4 the same way you observe that others violate the original context of the 10 Commandments in Ex. 20. Hebrews is addressed to a Jewish audience, and these chapters make the point that any Jew today can come to rest in the Creator by faith in Christ. But, the sad reality is that for the Jewish nation as a whole, they will not experience rest until the end of the age. They did not experience rest in the days of Moses, nor when Joshua led them into the land, nor even yet during the days of David, who authored Psa. 95 (quoted at length in Heb. 3-4). But someday, the entire Jewish nation will know the reality of true spiritual rest to which the physical sabbath points as a mere symbol. Contextually speaking, then, since Hebrews is quoting Psa. 95 and is addressed to a Jewish audience, it is quite clear that the “people of God” in Heb. 4 represents the covenant Jewish people – not believers in the Body of Christ. The author’s point, therefore, is not that the Sabbath remains in force today for all believers – Jew or Gentile – but that rather the true rest to which it points still remains as a reality yet to be experienced by the Jews in the future – when they will finally come to faith in Christ. It is not a carryover from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, but rather a Jewish symbol whose prophetic significance has yet to be realized for the Jewish nation. It is in this sense that there remains a Sabbath rest for the [Jewish] people of God.
        In this regard, it may not be coincidental that the Sabbath falls at the end of the week, since it points prophetically to the nation coming to rest at the end of the age. While Christians worship on the first day of the week – looking back to the resurrection of Christ – Jews worship on the last day of the week, looking forward to the end of the age when they will come to spiritual rest.

        • you are right Ken. I should have been more clear. I’m saying the fourth commandment is discussed in the NT. But it (along with the Mossaic Law) is not binding to believers. And, if “bear false witness against your neighbor” can become “have you ever told a white lie” then certainly it is justified to say that the heart behind the 4th commandment is to find rest in Christ. So I am NOT a sabatarian, I don’t call Sunday the Sabbath. The Sabbath is Saturday, and Chrisitans do not observe it. Instead, we find the greater rest.

          How is that?

    • Good post Steve.

    • Noah Hartmetz

      This is the second time you’ve said something to the effect that Mayhue affirms that the 10 Commandments are for believers today, as well as for unbelievers (I assume you mean Gentiles). Mike asked you yesterday to provide some quotes to back up your statement and I have the same question because I just finished listening to his session for the second time and I heard nothing of the sort. I heard quite the opposite, especially around the 25 minute mark where he gives his answer to the question of the session’s title.

      • Marco Scouvert


        I was in attendance at Dr. Mayhue’s lecture and vividly remember him saying that the Mosaic Law has use still today for unbelievers. I think you and someone else on the blog (it may have been Mike Riccardi, but don’t recall exactly) have both objected to hearing this in the lecture, so I went ahead and relistened online and found where Dr. Mayhue explicitly states it.

        Starting at exactly 41:33, Dr. Mayhue (giving his first point from the New Testament) says, “The law, the Mosaic Law does serve a function today, but not with the authority of the New Covenant. Anybody want to venture what that purpose is? And it’s crystal clear in the Scripture and talked about numerous times. Is it good for a believer? No. For an unbeliever. And it is to show them how sinful they are. Now it also served that purpose in the Old. That no one could be righteous, uh, before God. Because nobody perfectly obeyed the Law until Jesus Christ. And He qualified to be the Passover Lamb by living a perfectly . . . sin-less life. . .”

        About 1.5 minutes later, around 43 minutes in, he goes on to quote 1 Timothy 1:8 and says that the proper use of the Mosaic Law is to mirror man’s sinfulness and show them their sin and their need for a savior. Now this seems to be pretty clear validation of using the Mosaic Law to show unbelievers their falling short of God’s standard for salvation. Perhaps I am taking his thoughts beyond what he would be comfortable saying, but it seems pretty straightforward. And this would then, as the gentleman above has pointed out, would be at odds with what Jesse and others have been saying about not using the 10 Commandments nor the Mosaic Law in evangelism

        Ultimately Dr. Mayhue is not the authority on the issue, Scripture is. But I thought this would help clear up any cloudiness over whether or not Dr. Mayhue put forward this position as his own in the session. Personally I would agree with this portion of his session, that the Law is still a tutor to point unbelievers to their need to be saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:24). Hope this helps.

    • sd

      Let’s not forget that the audience of the Book of Hebrews were JEWISH Believers. They were raised on the Commandments — all 613, not just the first 10…

    • Dave Porter

      Hey Steve. Where in the study bible does MacArthur say this?

  • If the 10 Commandments do not apply to gentiles, then does that go for the rest of the OT? If that is the case, then does the rest of the OT not apply to us gentile Christians? All we need is the NT? Thanks.

    • Good question Dominic. We need all Scripture, because it is all fit for teaching, training, rebuking, etc. We especially need the OT Law as it gives us examples of what happens to those who disobey. So I think we need all Scripture, and and it all applies to us.

      A different question is are gentile believers under the commands of the Mossaic Law. I say no.

  • Dehanson1

    Your right, people will be judged by sin BUT what is sin? According to the new test the only definition given is “sin is transgression of the law” (10 commandments) Every person outside of Christ is under the law(10commandments) and stand condemned even though they dont even realize it. So the whole world outside of christ is under the condemnation of the law (10 commandments) and will be judged by the law…each one will fall at the first one. If you violate the civil law, say you rape someone, when you are caught and appear before a judge you will be judged and condemned acording to the law my friend. The Christian, however, is not under the wrath and condemnation and terrors of the law. The rest of the world is whether they know it or not…

    • Sure Dehanson. I’m with you, except for the parts in parenthesis. The majority of the time that Scriptures use the word “Law” it does not mean 10 commandments. I’ve said this in a few comment threads, but it might bear its own post some day in the future (when it is far removed from the present discussion), but “law” normally is a synonym for “scripture.” But I’m with you on the rest.

  • Dehanson1

    When the bible says that , “All liars will have their place in the lake of fire” and that no thief nor fornicator, adulterer nor covetous person ect will enter the kindgom He is alluding that these people will be judged by the 10 commandments…..also, when Jesus spoke to the adulterous woman at the well he actually used the 7th commandment on her without even verbally saying it. He asked an adulterous/forncating woman to do what no adulterer/foricator could do…go get her husband. Also with the young rich ruler Jesus clearly demostrated that the man was in clear violation of the 1rst, 2nd, and 10th commandment without even mentioning the commandments. He asked a covetous, idolator, whos God was his money to do what no covetous, idolitor would do…give everything away and follow me..

    • I think that list in Revelation is not comprehensive of the 10 commandments, and it also adds things not on that list too–you left out “cowards” for example. I also think that if you reduce “using the 7th commandment on her” to “without verbally saying it” you have already sort of admitted defeat here. I’ve talked about the rich young ruler a few times here, but I don’t see the second half of the conversation going that way. I see Jesus setting aside the Law, and making the issue about him, not the law. In other words, what matters is how you respond to Jesus, not the law. Even Ray Comfort, when he writes about the rich young ruler does not think Jesus made it a 10th commandment issue, but a first commandment issue. But I guess there is confusion if the standard is “uses a commandment without even verbally saying it.” I mean, that sort of hits the nail on the proverbial head. The man’s sin was bigger than a commandment because he was walking away from Jesus! We don’t need to shoe horn that into one of the 10.

  • Dehanson1

    “Sin is (not was) transgression of the Law)…that is New Testament theology. The confusion about “Law” and how it applies is this. Under Old Test judaism there were 600 and some odd laws ect…but there was no seperation of church and stae…that is there was no distinction between jewish civil law, jewish ceremonial/scaraficial law amd the moral law. Clearly we are not under the jewish civil law nor under the ceremonial/scarificial law. However the moral law is still in effect. It has never changed nor been “done away” with. In fact the new test brings it to an even higher standard. In the old test the law said dont murder, Jesus said anyone who hates his brother IS a murderer. Old test says dont commit adultery, Jesus said if you look in lust you have commited adultery in your heart…..We are not saved by keeping the 10 commandments, we keep the 10 commandments(in word, thought, deed, and intent of the heart) out of obedience beacause we are saved and salvation has been provided. The christian is not under the condemnation of the law. The rest of the world is even though they dont know it.

    • Sweet. We agree on much. We agree you are not saved by law keeping. Are you saying that the fourth commandment was not moral? Let me ask it positively. Is the fourth commandment moral? Let me ask it another way. How can you tell what is moral and what is simply civil? Earlier I thought you used rape as an example of a civil law. Or was I misunderstanding you?

  • Jesse said, “I made much of the concept that when both the Old Testament and the New Testament use the word “law,” it generally does not mean simply the imperatives in Exodus-Deuteronomy, and it almost never means “the ten commandments.””

    However, John MacArthur states differently. The two below links are of John MacArthur and he is talking about the ten commandments and refers to them as the law. He even uses the rich young ruler. No where does he state that the ten commandments is not the law in the NT and no where does he state the ten commandments are for Israel only.



    • I grant that the word “Law” is used at times by people (and some Scripture passages) to describe the 10 commandments. I even get that MacArthur uses it that way…SOMETIMES. But that is certainly the exception in both places. The normal way the word is used in the Bible, and by John, is to describe the commands of Scripture, but not exclusively the ten commandments. Just because someone uses it that way in one place, does not mean it has that meaning in every place.

      • patsly

        Hi Jesse,

        Congrats on your new pastorate. I was just in Israel 2 weeks ago with with Michael and a few members of Immanuel.

        Quick question on this topic…could you comment on Paul’s use of “decrees against us” in Col 2:14?

        • Thanks Pat. I think that passage speaks to the cancellation of the “certificate of debt” that believers owed God. I don’t think the decrees against us are specific elements of the Mosaic Law, but rather are all the areas that we have fallen short of God’s standard. All of his judgments against us have been canceled. Obviously there are strong connections to the Mossaic Law here though, and I think Gal 3:10 ff speaks a similar theme as this passage. Also, the parable in Mat 28:23 ff also speaks to the same concept.

  • Spurgeon disagrees with you,

    “The Ten Commandments, like ten great pieces of cannon, are pointed at thee to-day, for thou hast broken all God’s statutes, and lived in the daily neglect of all his commands.”

    “The Ten Commands surround us on all sides, and encompass all the movements of body, soul, and spirit, comprising under their jurisdiction the whole range of moral action; they hold us under fire from all points, and nowhere are we out of range.”

    “I find it sometimes profitable to myself to read the Ten Commandments, and to think over my sins against each one of them. What a list it is, and how it humbles you in the dust to read it over!”

    • I think you (or someone else) posted this quote on another thread here recently too. I like this quote, and agree. Scripture is convicting, and there is such a depth to the ten commandments that meditating on them certainly brings conviction of sin in our lives. I”m on board with these quotes. Spurgeon and I may disagree on somethings, but I’m comfortable we are partners here.

  • Dave Porter

    What do you do with the writings of men Like Charles Spurgeon who says things like..” The Ten Commandments are against you…etc.?

    • I think the ten commandments are against sinners. I ended the post above saying that I do sometimes use the ten commandments in evangelism, but by analogy. In other words, because they give us a manifestation of God’s moral law, they are useful in bringing about conviction of sin. But I am also saying that this is not their authorial intent, and that when non-believers die, they are judged for sinning, not necessarily for breaking the ten commandments. Does that difference make sense?

      • Dave Porter

        But I have been reading Spurgeon, Whitefield, Luther and learing about the puritans, and all these use the term moral law and the ten commandments interchangably, same as Ray Comfort. Your fight isn’t with Ray Comfort, it is with Puritan evangelism.

        • Dave Porter

          I would like to re-word what I just said! When I said your FIGHT is not…..etc. I would have been more gracious to have said, your issue or your disagreement! Sorry if I was unnecissarily harsh!

        • That’s true Dave. And I don’t want to quibble too much. My main point is that the moral law transcends the 10 commandments. They are not simply interchangeable. In fact, possibly no other OT passage shows as much insight into God’s moral standard as the 10 commandments, and that is why it is so tempting to simply make them one in the same.
          Also, in a covenenential tri-partite view of the Law, that is obviously the case. Most of the puritans had that view of the law, so that makes sense.

          • Dave Porter

            But if Masters Seminary strives to preserve the Puritan legacy, are you not going against that effort? And besides, it’s unfair to pull Ray Comfort away from them to single him out as teaching wrong stuff, when you should have been honest up front and said this is puritan evangelism I am having trouble with. You said you were almost positive that Spureon and Whitefeild were not advocating the use of the ten commandments in evangelism, but now you admit it? I am confused.

  • Dehanson1

    To the Christian the 10 commandments are actually the law of liberty referred to in James. Why? Because the 10 commandments demand the behavior that the new creation desires. Its is only in obedience to God that a person can ever be truly free. So long as a person obeys his or her wants, desires and lusts, he or she is nothing more than a slave. The christian is not undee the condemnation and wrath of the law. The lost person however is, even if they dont know it. The whole world outside of Christ is under the wrath of the law. The bible says that they are enimies of Gof in their minds through wicked works and the wrath of God abides on them and that on judgment day all of Gods enimies shall be swallowed up in His wrath and cast into the lake of fire….without the moral law you cannot even define what “sin is as sin is transgression of the law”. Without the 10 commandments the cross seems like foolishness to folks and hell seems barbaric. The law (10 commandments) are the missing ingredient that spoils the Gospel recipie in their abscence…..

  • Stevenlamm


    Thanks for the thought provoking posts on the law and the Gospel. Can you name a few books or other resources that you personally have found helpful in sharpening your thoughts on this issue?


    • The end of the Law, by Jason Meyer is probably the best thing I have read on this. Also, Mark Ruker’s Ten Commandments is powerful on the depth of the 10 commandments in their original context. They are both part of the NAC series. Moo’s commentary on Romans deals with the concept of Law exceptionally well. Also, Feinbug’s massive Ethics for a Brave New World is one of my favorites. He takes a balanced view with the three part division of the Law (it is helpful to study the law, but grants that it is imposed on the text). Those would probably be my favs.

  • Tim

    Wow. Thank you Jesse and Mike for this series. I did not realize how much my contact with TWOTM had affected my view of the Ten Commandments. I have never been a convert of TWOTM, but I have dear friends that have gone through the TWOTM equivalent of the “caged Calvinist,” stage. While I, like you, value the impact of the TWOTM in giving American evangelicalism a much needed boot in the pants, this, dare I say “correction,” is very timely and important. As I have been thinking about this, I have seen that there are huge implications to a correct understanding of the big ten to my walk and my sharing Christ with others. I echo Stevenlamm’s request for more resource. Thanks again.

  • Multiple people over the past few days have quoted the King James Version of 1 John 3:4 in order to support the idea that all sin is a violation of the Ten Commandments particluarly. I think it will be helpful to offer a quick response.

    The KJV renders that verse: “Sin is transgression of the law.” The thing is, the Greek text does not use the word for “transgression.” It simply says that sin is anomia. This is the word for “lawlessness.” So, a more accurate translation, as the NAS has it, would be: “Sin is lawlessness.”

    At this point, the question gets kicked back to, “What law are we talking about?” Some people will say that that law is the Mosaic Law, or perhaps even the Ten Commandments in particular. But there is no textual warrant for this, since every occurence of “law” or one of its cognates does not mean “Ten Commandments,” or even “Law of Moses.” In this case, it’s perfectly legitimate on exegetical grounds to understand John as classifying sin as having no regard for “the law of God” — that transcendent, universal standard of absolute moral righteousness that is defined by God’s character — not the Law of Moses in general or the Ten Commandments in particular.

    • BillH

      Good reply Mike. The Ten Commandments themselves can be summarized in the First Commandment. I propose that ALL sin is a violation of that one. When you sin, you are putting your own desires ahead of God’s desires, or putting yourself above (before) God. Breaking any of the other of the Ten Commandments requires that you break the First as well. As Mike stated above, doing anything against the nature of God breaks the First Commandment and is considered sin. You can go both ways on this one with the arguments about whether the Ten Commandments are binding for us. However the First Commandment is just that based on the fact that if we reject or ignore Jesus (and Jesus is God) we are also breaking the First one.

    • I quite honestly think you guys are getting pretty nit picky. The 10 commandments are part of the law. Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law and prophets, but to fullfil them. If a ‘church goer’ said to me, we’re not under the 10 Commandments, I’d ask which one? So, you can commit adultery? You can murder? You can not honor God? You can make graven images? You can covet other things? YOu can steal? You can not obey your parents?

      The only one of the 10 that he could possibly state is the Sabbath. ALL the others are covered quite nicely by Paul, Peter, and Jesus the Messiah himself. In fact, the 2 commandments God and others, are covered nicely in the 10 commandments as well.

      If a non-believer says what about shell fish? What about slavery? What about this or what about that, you SHOULD be able to state boldly and show from the NT and OT. why we are not under the ceremonial laws as the Jews were of their time.

      Jesus said we shouldn’t look at another with lust. What does that fall under?
      OT – Thou shalt not commit adultery? Thou shalt not covet?
      NT – Thou shalt not commit adultery? Thou shalt not covet?


      • If a ‘church goer’ said to me, we’re not under the 10 Commandments, I’d ask which one?

        Number four.

        So, you can commit adultery? You can murder? You can not honor God? You can make graven images? You can covet other things? You can steal? You can not obey your parents?

        This reflects a misunderstanding of the position being advocated here. Of course we would answer “No” to all of these questions. But the reason we would say no is not because these are part of the Ten Commandments, but because they are part of the “law of God.” (If you are unsure of the distinction, read this post: http://thecripplegate.com/evangelism-and-the-law-of-god/ )

        And so Jesse’s point is, if you want to convict a sinner of covetousness, you can do so on the authority of Ephesians 5:5. If you want to convict a sinner of lying, you can do so on the authority of Ephesians 4:25 and Revelation 21:8. If you want to convict a sinner of stealing, you can do so on the authority of Ephesians 4:28. You don’t need to go to Exodus 20 in order to do biblical evangelism.

        Maybe that’s nit-picky. But maybe it’s borne out of a desire to build our practice of evangelism on sound, and even precise, theology.

        • Mike,

          I understand what you’re saying Mike. Truly I do, but God’s law is all encompassing and those are parts of God’s encompassing law. It’s all God’s law. There is nothing in the 10 that aren’t applicable to today with the day or ‘corporate’ worship. Even the Sabbath, I might even dare say, that everyone should have a day of rest. It might not be Saturday or Sunday, but there should be one. That’s why you I’m quite sure, worship on Sunday. Maybe Wednesday eve, maybe Tues morning.

          They’re also easier to get to and as I have for a lesson I will probably do, each with it’s corresponding N.T. scripture eqiv’s alongside.

          Instead of all the gobblygook I was going to type in my own words, I’ll post these.

          A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the LAW and highly respected by all the Jews living there. (Acts 22:12)

          This is the O.T. law

          When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the LAW.” (Acts 21:20)

          Jews and the law. History states that these Jews were Torah observers and continued to be.

          To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (1 Corinthians 9:20)

          Gal. 2:11-14 Peter reverts to following a man-made tradition. We also know that there were very few times in Paul’s ministry when he was not in the company of Jews.

          Acts 21:24 about the purification rites, etc…. acting like a Torah observant Jew living in obedience to the law.

          It seems to me Paul also quoted O.T. scripture to the Gentiles quite a bit.

          While you might have to explain a bit more, I think is actually more helpful in showing grace to a non-believer. We’re not under that O.T. law where you’re stoned because Christ did it for you. He took the pain, the suffering, the nails for you. And… he rose again on the 3rd day according to the scriptures! Praise God. Isn’t that wonderful news?!

          Lastly, are you Dispensational, Sov. Grace, Reformed Baptist. Are you a, post, mid, pre? Which is precise theology? Are all of them precise?

          Thanks for the banter.


  • Dave Forman

    It seems that your argument proves too much. By dismissing the Ten Commandments and saying sin is really a violation of God’s character and not the violation of specific commandments, one has to query: Are not the commandments themselves reflections of God’s character? If so, why do you dismiss them and our violations of them so easily?

    • True Dave. Well said. I don’t want to dismiss violations of them so easily. Let me borrow one of Ray’s illustrations and steal it for my own benefit. If you visit LA, and you speed, and you get pulled over, the cop would not write you a ticket and charge you with breaking Virginia state law. The speed limit in VA and in CA may happen to be the same, but to say the reason speeding is wrong is because it is under a law given to Virginians, and you are in CA, doesn’t make sense. Now the reason it is illegal in both places is because it is unsafe, etc. The same reasons apply. So to say that VA law doesn’t apply in CA isn’t to dismiss the infraction of it, but to simply say that VA law wasn’t given to you. Yet you can still learn about the dangers of speeding by studying it. All analogies have their limits, but I hope that helps.

  • Sophie

    Hi Jesse,
    Just one question: You wrote that non believers will be judged for sinning… not for breaking the 10 commandments. But I don’t see how the 2 can be separated… to sin means to miss the mark – meaning we miss in keeping the moral law perfectly?

    • Hi Sophie. The confusion comes from equating “the moral law” with “the 10 commandments.” If those two constructs are identical, you’re right, and Jesse’s distinction between sinning and breaking the 10 commandments makes no sense.

      But, if those two constructs are not identical, and one is an expression of the other — namely, the 10 commandments are an expression of the moral law — then the distinction holds. This post might help explain the relationship between “the moral law,” or “the law of God,” and “the Ten Commandments”: http://thecripplegate.com/evangelism-and-the-law-of-god/

      Also, if you think about how the people before the Ten Commandments were given (in Exodus 20 circa 1445 BC) could be held accountable for sinning, you see that sinning is not merely a breaking of the Ten Commandments simply because they’re the Ten Commandments. Rather, there were moral precepts and standards emanating from God’s own character (i.e., “the law of God,” or “the moral law”) to which all are held accountable. The people drowned in the Flood were judged for sinning, but there were no Ten Commandments yet to break.

      It’s true that the Ten Commandments (well, at least 9 of them) reflect eternal moral principles, but that’s because they are an expression of the law of God.

      Hopefully that helps and doesn’t make things even more confusing. 🙂

      • Dave Porter

        Mike. I think any Christian would agree that sinning took place before the ten commandments were given. But God in His mercy gave us a standard in which to measure ourselves against, in order to know what sin is because of the darkness of our hearts. That’s why Paul said I had not known sin but by the Law. He said he would not have known what sin was until it said you shall not covet! Sin is defined by the written moral commands so that we can know when we are sinning. That’s why we can come up to someone on the street and ask them if they are a sinner and often hear them say no, because they have nothing in which to measure it. This is why when we ask someone if they are a good person, they always say yes, It’s not that they are lying when they say this. They actually believe it to be true! That’s why when we open up the commandments, and ask them the questions lied stolen etc, we ALWAYS get that deer in the headlights look! Our sinful hearts decieve us. That’s why Spurgeon said, until we show them the commandments they have “at least a partial excuse of ignorance, but when the code of rules is spread before them, their offenses become greater since they are commited against light and knowledge. He who sins against conscience will be condemned; how much sorer a punishment will be due to the one who despises the voice of Jehovah, defies His sacred sovereignty, and willfully tramples His commands.

      • Dave Porter

        I might as well finish the quote by Spurgeon. “The more light, the greater the guilt_ the Law gives forth that light and so causes us to become double offenders. O you nations of the earth who have heard the Law of Jehovah_ your sin is increased, and your offense abounds.” This is why we not only use the ten commandments, but we proclaim them!

  • Ken

    Anybody care to explain why James – writing to NT believers – says in 2:12 to conduct ourselves as those who will be judged by the Law? The previous verses make clear that he has in mind the Mosaic Law, since he explicitly quotes some of the Ten Commandments as representative examples of the Law that he has in mind. I would be curious to know how others interpret and apply the words of James.

    • That is a great question Ken. That verse (esp vs. 10) shows how strange it is to argue that some laws are moral (commandments 1-3), some are ceremonial (4), and some are civil. James expressly makes the point that you can’t break them up.
      He also makes the point that under the Mosaic law, if you broke one commandment, you broke the whole law. But before and after verse 12, he shows that believers are not under that same law. Rather, he says we are under the “Royal Law” (vs. 8), and the greatest commandment there is not even one of the 10. Then he reminds that believers will be judged by the “the law of liberty” (13). So unless you argue that the royal law and the law of liberty are both the 10 commandments, I don’t see how this passage teaches that believers are under the mosaic law.

    • Marco Scouvert

      Looking at this passage, I am wondering about past dialogue I have read and heard that say when we die we will not be judged by the Law, but by whether we have accepted or rejected Christ. As I think, Paul’s teaching that there are two ways to righteousness before God: works and faith (Galatians 3:12a)? Doesn’t he chastize the Judaizers for trying to gain righteousness by the works of the Law, stating that if that is what they are trying to do, then they are still under the curse; the obligation to keep the whole Law perfectly and the condemnation/death for those who cannot (Galatians 3:10, 12b)? The reason I ask these questions is because it seems like if someone tries to justify themselves before God by their own works (which is the only other option outside of faith in Jesus Christ, no matter what shape or form it takes), won’t they then be mercilessly judged by God without partiality, that is, with the requirement that they had to have perfectly kept all of His Law? So for those who try to stand before God and offer Him their works when they are dead and being judged, won’t their standard be perfection as demonstrated in the law of God, whether written on their hearts or in Scripture? These questions have entered my mind and as I thought about them, I thought it would be good to get some feedback from others to help crystallize my thinking on this.

      As I am thinking of the above questions, my position on the initial purpose of the Law, the active obedience of Christ, and the sinner’s basis of righteousness before God are flowing together. Therefore I though it good (since I wonder if they are intimately tied to my thoughts above) to mention that I do hold to the active obedience of Christ and the imputation of His perfect life (His keeping of God’s Law) while on earth, as the basis of the believer’s positive righteousness before God. I would say that the Law of God could have potentially produced righteousness, but because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and man’s subsequent inherently depraved nature, it is impossible. (I haven’t provided Scripture references for these previous assertions because I do want the comments to get centered around them, but rather am hoping that if the two are intimately tied, someone can help me think through that) And even with that I am wondering if the Law of God is still the standard of judgment for believers? Could it be that we are just no longer personally under the obligation to keep it, because it has been kept perfectly by Christ on our behalf? What are some thoughts?

    • Marco Scouvert

      One other portion of Scripture came to mind, based on a discussion above, and that is Colossians 2:13-14. In verse 13 it says that in Jesus Christ we have been forgiven all our transgressions, which are violations of God’s Law (not saying specifically Mosaic). And then in v.14, sinners apart from Christ are described as having a “certificate of debt consisting of decrees against” them. Again my question is: does this not insinuate that those who die apart from Christ will be condemned based on their transgression of God’s standard, which again is found in Scripture and/or the Law written on their hearts? And wouldn’t this then make perfect sense for the remote islander who has nothing but the general revelation of creation and conscience; that he would be condemned based on his violation of God’s Law written upon his heart, and not for rejecting the Gospel (which he did not have enough revelation to understand) and/or Jesus Christ (whom he never even heard about)?

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