Apologetics FundOrders

Published on June 29th, 2010 | by Gary DeMar


Commandments, Not Suggestions

It’s only been recently that biblical law has been viewed as non-applicational to contemporary society, by non-Christians and Christians alike. The claim is made that there are so many laws in the Old Testament that would be impossible to apply today. Laws against murder and theft are viewed as self-evident that everyone agrees on. Certainly in principle this is mostly the case, but not always in practice. The country is divided over whether abortion snuffs out a human life or just “terminates a pregnancy.” Civil governments tax and redistribute confiscated revenue to people who under other circumstances would never receive the money unless it had been voluntarily given to them or they stole it. In Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled that municipalities can use the government’s eminent domain power to aid private parties by taking private homes, land, and businesses for private commercial development, in essence creating a reverse Robin Hood effect in order to generate additional tax revenue. Is it theft? Does it come under the prohibition of the eighth commandment?

The simplest approach is to claim that grace trumps law and then be done with the totality of God’s law. Of course, no one can live in a world where there is no law. Even atheists concede that we live in a moral universe even though they can’t account for morality given their naturalistic and materialistic assumptions. This hasn’t stopped them from trying to come up with moral absolutes that have application beyond the individual.(1) History’s most notorious tyrants—Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin—felt no twinge of conscience in exterminating millions, but would have objected if someone tried to kill them. But in a purposeless universe, who’s keeping track?

There is a long history going back centuries of attempts to apply biblical law to society.  “Indeed, biblical laws deal with topics ranging from criminal and penal law to judicial procedure and the administration of justice, commercial law, torts and injuries, family law, property law, estate planning, martial law, and social welfare, in addition to the laws concerning divine sanctity, cultic sacrifice, and religious taboos that usually come to mind when people first think of law in the Bible.”(2) Some laws are easily transferable and applied. Laws against murder, theft, and perjury are written into the law books of America, so much so that few people ever question their origin. Marking property lines with “permanent monuments identifying land corners” is a common practice that has an ancient history as legal reasoning has shown, first, by the contention that private property is a divine ordinance, and second that the boundaries of a person’s property was sacrosanct: “From earliest times the law not only authorized but protected landmarks. Interference with landmarks of another was a violation of the Mosaic Law. See Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17; Job 24:2; Proverbs 22:28; 23:10.”(3) This is why Ted Koppel could say in a 1987 commencement address at Duke University,

What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time. Language evolves. Power shifts from one nation to another. Messages are transmitted with the speed of light. Man erases one frontier after another. And yet we and our behavior and the commandments governing that behavior remain the same.(4)

There was a time when Koppel’s views were common because the general population of the United States, from farmers to government officials, knew the Bible and its moral precepts even if they all didn’t embrace the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Mark Noll comments that “It should not be surprising that even the least orthodox of the founders of the nation paid attention to scripture, for they lived at a time when to be an educated member of the Atlanta community was to know the Bible.”(5) Today, the law as summarized in the Ten Commandments literally has been removed from public view in the places where it is needed most—in our civil institutions which have become a law unto themselves. Even so, a study of the subjects these ancient laws address will show that they have a contemporary ring to them despite how they are dismissed by modern-day lawmakers and jurists. Law professor John W. Welch observes:

In teaching biblical law to law students for twenty years, I have noticed that its topics and underlying policies have always proved to be surprisingly relevant and stimulating to me and to my students. Not only do Israelite and other Near Eastern texts promulgate rules that deal with problems and address legal issues that still arise in society today, but comparison and analysis is also illuminating and profitable for American law students precisely because the roots of the legal system in the United States are so deeply intertwined with biblical law. Thus, the study of its solutions and value structures helps to illuminate the issues and elements that both shaped the origins of American law and also remain relevant in modern times.(6)

There is no doubt that Welch’s observations are accurate. The amount of extant material available to scholars on the subject supporting the claim is overwhelming even if we are unaware of them. Some of the earliest court cases in the United States make statements that show the importance of the Decalogue in the reinforcement of our nation’s legal tradition. In a 1914 case, the court acknowledged, “The laws of spiritual life, of civil life, and moral life are all set forth in the ten commandments.”(7) The 1899 West Virginia case Moore v. Strickling argued in a similar way:

These commandments, which, like a collection of diamonds, bear testimony to their own intrinsic worth—in themselves appeal to us as coming from a superhuman or divine source; and no conscientious or reasonable man has yet been able to find a flaw in them. Absolutely flawless, negative in terms but positive in meaning, they easily stand at the head of our whole moral system; and no nation or people can long continue a happy existence, in open violation of them.”(8)

In 1931, Judge Charles Sumner Lobingier declared that “Israel’s law is the connecting link between the earliest and the latest legal systems and has proved itself one of the most influential forces in the evolution of the world’s law.”(9) But long before these modern statements, we find that “King Alfred in his Doom Book adopted the Ten Commandments and other selections from the Pentateuch, together with the Golden Rule in the negative form, as the foundation of the early laws of England.”(10) Harold. B. Clark presents a compelling historical perspective in his 1944 classic Biblical Law:

The Scriptures doubtless have been a potent influence upon American Law. In the early colonial period, the Bible seems to haven commonly regarded among the people as law. Several of the colonies formally adopted provisions of Mosaic law.(11) For example, Plymouth Colony in 1636 adopted a “small body of Lawes” largely based upon the laws of Israel. And New Haven Colony in 1639 resolved that “the word of God shall be the only rule to be attended to in ordering the affairs of government in this plantation,” and in 1655 adopted a code in which 47 out of 79 topical statutes were based on the Bible.(12)

With the exception of Rhode Island, every early American colony incorporated the entire Decalogue into its legal code. In 1638, prior to leaving Boston, Massachusetts, the leading men of the proposed Rhode Island colony incorporated themselves into a political body. The Portsmouth Compact, signed by 23 men, stated the following: “We whose names are underwritten do hereby solemnly in the presence of Jehovah incorporate ourselves into a Bodie Politick and as He shall help, will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His Holy Word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.” The following Bible passages accompany the text: Exodus 24:3–4; 2 Chronicles 11:3; 2 Kings 11:17.

There is a lesson here for today’s churches and courts. There is no escape from law. The question is, Whose law?Endnotes:

  1. Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal, 1979:6 (December 1979), 1229–1249. “I will put the current situation as sharply as possible: there is today no way of ‘proving’ that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then later slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion.” (Arthur Allen Leff, “Economic Analysis of Law: Some Realism about Nominalism,” Yale Law Review 60 [1974], 454–455).()
  2. John W. Welch, “Biblical Law in America: Historical Perspectives and Potentials for Reform,” Brigham Young University Law Review (2002), 613.()
  3. International Paper Realty Company v. Bethune. No. 43092. Supreme Court of Georgia, June 10, 1986.()
  4. Ted Koppel, The Last Word, Commencement Address at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (May 10, 1987). Quoted in Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 164.()
  5. Mark A Noll, “The Bible in Revolutionary America,” The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Political Rhetoric, ed. James Turner Johnson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 39–40.()
  6. Welch, “Biblical Law in America,” 610–611.()
  7. Quoted in Harold B. Clark, Biblical Law, 2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1944). 8, note.()
  8. Moore v. Strickling (1899) 46 W. Va. 515, 33 SE 274, 50 LRA 279, 282. Quoted in Clark, Biblical Law, 8.()
  9. 4 China LR (1931) 362 (Lobingier). Quoted in Clark, Biblical Law, 43.()
  10. Quoted in J. Nelson Happy and Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, “Genesis!: Scriptural Citation and the Lawyer’s Bible Project,” Regent University Law Review 89 (1997).()
  11. William Galbraith Miller, The Data of Jurisprudence (Edinburgh and London: William Green and Sons, 1903), 416.()
  12. Clark, Biblical Law, 44.()
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About the Author

Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, His most recent book is Exposing the Real Last Days Scoffers. Gary lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and four grandchildren, Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).

14 Responses to Commandments, Not Suggestions

  1. Sebastian says:

    If the commandments of God do not have to be kept in order to be saved, then doesn’t that make them merely suggestions or matters of expedience?

  2. Scott R. Harrington says:

    Friends, All true Christians, I believe, all agree is stating that the Ten Commandments are still in moral-ethical effect, and were not done away with by the New Covenant (Testament) of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Where Christians do differ on this a little is in a minor detail: how to number the ordering of the 10 Commandments; the Eastern Orthodox and Reformed Presbyterians number them the same way; the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics, I believe, number them a different way from the Reformed and Orthodox Christians. There may be more logical or theological reasons why Christians number them differently, but the thing is, the commandments are laws of God which are to be obeyed, and to be respected. In Erie PA Scott R. Harrington

    • Emily Brobst says:

      I think you will find that the Catholic Church not only numbered the commandments differently, the Church also
      changed the day of rest from Saturday to Sunday officially. The Church issued the Sabbath command as the third, not the fourth, and divided the last commandment into two, maintaining the number of them. The prohibition against idols was removed, necessitating the re-numbering.

  3. Robert McCurry says:

    Dear Gary:

    Thanks for your powerful and much needed ‘Commandments, Not Suggestions’ article. Hopefully, it will be read and understood by many–especially pastors. I perceive, however, you are “talking in tongues” to many making it all the more an important truth that must be declared.

    Unless you object, I will print this article in my ‘The Wake-up Herald’ church publication, giving proper credit to you and American Vision.

    May the Lord’s grace and blessing continue to be with you.

    In Christ’s service,

    Pastor Robert McCurry

  4. The last sentence of your article sum up the important question for the Christian Church of today:

    "There is a lesson here for today’s churches and courts. There is no escape from law. The question is, Whose law?"

    It's obvious that Christianity and God in general are being removed from the US governmental system as it decays into worsening corruption. What's written into law seems not to matter as the government does as it wishes in it's own best interest with little or no accountability to the people. Christians need to follow the laws of truth as stated in scripture and the only way the Church will be effective is to do the same.

    Will modern Christians and the Christian Church have the fortitude to stand as a people apart as the early Christians did?

  5. NickKane says:

    I think a lot of people need to crawl out from under the Exodus and read Jeremiah 31: 31-33 along with Hebrews Chapter 10. Maybe if we did, we'd understand that Christ IS our Sabbath and we have entered into His rest Hebrews 4:10. If we don't have the same Covenant as made with Moses, then, how can we have the same Covenantal stipulations? This is the impression I am getting by what I am reading.

  6. I wouldn't say that grace trumps law, but I would say that grace triumphs over law. Grace is above and beyond the law.

    Galatians 5:14
    For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
    Matthew 5:17
    Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

    • Emily Brobst says:

      And if you love your neighbor as yourself, you will obey the Ten Commandments in all their fulness and meaning, as Christ did, expanding and magnifying it, precisely to love your neighbor fully.

      People think that Jesus kept the law for us so we don't have to be particular about it. But I say he showed us it is indeed possible for us to keep the law through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit whose function it is to enable us to do so. When people say "It's impossible for us to keep the law" they are actually denying the power of the Holy Spirit. That is a blasphemous statement and God condemn it as unforgivable.

      • Scott R. Harrington says:

        Emily, Truly you state the truth. It IS possible to keep God's Law. We may at times fall into sins, and keep the Law imperfectly; but God is willing to forgive, provided we ask Him for forgiveness by confessing our wrongs, and turning from them with all our hearts. The spirit of the matter in us should be, "I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me". God save us and help us always to obey Him in all things. In Erie PA USA PS We do not have to keep the Saturday Sabbath to be saved; we are not under the Old Covenant of endless Sabbaths and endless genealogies and disputes about the Law and endless dietary laws and seemingly endless animals sacrifices in the Old Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The whole Law is fulfilled in the Life Person Work and Ministry of Our LORD GOD and Saviour, JESUS CHRIST.

  7. charles says:

    Gosh, I assumed that everyone – except maybe someone completely unexposed to Christianity – understood Saturday to be the "sabbath" and Sunday to be the "Lord's Day," meaning the seventh and first days respectively. Don't waste time casting pearls before swine . . . . . or straw men.

    • Emily Brobst says:

      When the apostle John said he was in the spirit on "the Lord's day". I think, given that that phrase is the only time it is used in the entire Bible, and that he had kept the Sabbath of the Lord faithfully, the Lord's day he
      was referring to was still the Saturday Sabbath. Furthermore, Jesus himself did not ever say that the Ten Commandments would be done away and that the Sabbath would be no longer binding. Instead,
      before he was to be taken to be crucified, he gave us one new ordinance, communion. If there were
      ever a time to cancel the Sabbath (not Sunday!) that would have been the time. But he let it stand.

  8. @wizzid says:

    So, shall we accept once and for all that the Sabbath is on the seventh day, and not on the first? or is this the least of the Commandments, and therefore legitimate prey of Christians? Did I say "the least of the Commandments"? see Mat 5:19, gives one pause, eh?

  9. Tom F. says:

    “It’s only been recently that biblical law has been viewed as non-applicational to contemporary society, by non-Christians and Christians alike.” – Gary DeMar

    That says it all. Only in these last post-Christian days of American church life has there been any problem with God’s commandments. Many Christians today though, feel that in the “age of grace,” anything is OK. The problem is that we have the world in our churches.

    • Teressia says:

      We, ACCORDING TO ROMANS 3, are not under the law, no Gentile was ever given the laws of Moses. When we believe that we have Eternal Life, by GOD'S FREE GIFT OF GRACE, Ephesians 2:8-9, we stop pretending we are such good and holy people and begin to PRAISE THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, WHO has sealed us until we are redeemed out of this world. When we live by faith, we do not want to break GOD'S WORD, none of it, but we all sin and come short of the Glory of GOD.
      What if everyone in America kept all the 10 commandments, would that get them all into HEAVEN? NONONO!
      We need to share THE GOSPEL with everyone. The law kills, because it has no remedy for sin. CHRIST died for the sins of the world and no one will go to hell because of their sins, because HE paid the debt of sin in full. Read John 3:16-18 and discover why anyone would perish.
      It is the lack of faith, not the lack of sin which keeps anyone from ETERNAL FELLOWSHIP WITH THE FATHER. "Believe on THE LORD JESUS CHRIST and thou shalt be saved." The world does not need the law, they need THE LIGHT.

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