Pastoral Q & A: Why Still Read the Ten Commandments?
In Reformed churches it’s normal to hear the Ten Commandments read during the morning worship service. This is a historic practice going back to the Reformation. Yet, sadly, there are churches claiming to be Reformed that have dropped this practice. There are individuals in Reformed churches which still do it who question why it continues to be done in their churches. They look at it as unnecessary, repetitive, or creating an unhealthy sense of guilt and maybe even shame. Some also object to it because, they say, it adds a legalistic flavour to our worship. So why still read the Ten Commandments?
Let’s start from the way the Scriptures teach Christians to regard the law of God. Think of Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” That is not just a statement of how that one Psalmist felt — rather, it’s a vision for how all believers should regard God’s law. It’s a vision that was perfectly fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, and to be fulfilled in all the disciples united to him in true faith. Similar sentiments are expressed elsewhere in Psalm 119: “I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law. Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules. Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.” Psalm 119 teaches believers to have a positive attitude towards God’s law — to love it and, as part of God’s Word, to treat it with respect. So, from that perspective, what problem could a Christian have with hearing God’s Law read to him or her on a weekly basis? If we were meditating on it regularly throughout the week because we love it so much, why would we object to hearing it in the holy presence of our God on Sunday morning?
We could approach this also from the angle of the function of the law in our worship. While it does remind us of the way of thankful living, its primary purpose is to remind us of our need for God’s grace at the beginning of our worship. Its primary purpose is to create a sense of humility in sinful people appearing before a holy God. It prepares us to confess our sins to our Father and seek forgiveness from him through Jesus Christ. In this regard, we ought to look at the law as our friend. It is there in our worship to help in the renewal of our relationship with our Father through his Son. It helps us to identify our sins and weaknesses, so that we would always be humble before our God. Here you can think of what the Holy Spirit says in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” That passage originally refers to human friends, but the principle still applies here. The best of friends will sometimes hurt you for your good. Similarly, the law is our friend as it exposes our sin and misery and drives us to Christ. How can we be negative towards something God gives us for our good?
I want to leave you with two important points to conclude.
First, we ought always to remember that our public worship service is a meeting with the thrice-holy God. This is the God who left Isaiah awe-struck with fear in Isaiah 6. Sometimes I fear that many Reformed people don’t see that God is present in our worship in a way that he isn’t present elsewhere. If we could perceive the full reality of what that means, would we be glib and casual about coming into God’s presence? Would we not welcome a reminder from him to be appropriately humble?
Second, we ought always to remember how prone we are to minimize, rationalize, deny, and forget our sinfulness. Every Christian is a sinner who still, to varying degrees, has the remnants of a sinful nature. We would rather be told “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14). We would rather have prophets prophesying smooth things (Isa.30:10). We would rather not have the bad news which makes the good news so great, and in so doing, we begin to lose sight of the grandeur of the gospel and the Saviour it proclaims. The law of God is like a mirror giving us our weekly reality check as we begin our worship. It gives that ever-needful reminder that, even as Christians, we are in constant need of God’s mercy in the Redeemer. How could that not be a good and helpful thing?