The Ten Commandments: Why the Law?

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof….neither doth Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation” (WCF, 19.5) Obviously, the Westminster Divines were not claiming that one’s obedience merits anything before God.  They knew their Bible. The Jews had sought to establish their own righteousness on the basis of their law keeping and failed. The Jew’s failure was unbelief.  They did not receive the teaching that “everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”  Of course, “believes” in that verse is a reference to belief in Christ.  Yet, freedom in Christ means freedom from the bondage of sin that we might offer obedience to Christ.  That obedience is described for us in the Ten Commandments. So, this article is an attempt to give some perspective on those commandments. 

Perhaps the first and most basic question needing addressed is, why the law?  After all, this question is raised in both Galatians and Romans. However, it is preceded by another question.  Paul asked the Galatians, does the law given to Moses nullify the promise given to Abraham? Let me illustrate what Paul is asking.  If I promise to give my car to a friend next week, then I have made him a promise.  However, when the week arrives for me to give my friend my care and I say, “You can now have my car if you do these three things,” what have I done?  I have introduced a law that nullified my promise.  So, has the law given to Moses nullified the promise given to Abraham? The answer is clear.  No, the law does not make void the promise (Gal. 3:17-18).

Now, this raises an obvious question.  Then why the law?  Paul says, “It was added because of transgressions…” (Gal. 3:19). Now, what does that mean?  Herman Ridderbos answers this question in his commentary on Galatians, saying,

From Rom. 4:15 and 5:20 it becomes apparent, however, that Paul means something else: the law was given, so to speak, to call forth the transgressions, and make them manifest. This is to say more than that by means of the law sin should be acknowledged as transgression in its proper and terrible character: it is to say also that by means of the law sin should come out into the open and multiply itself. The law makes guilt and evil greater (Rom. 5:20).[1]

The law is not introduced to nullify the promise.  The law was introduced to demonstrate the need for the promise! 

But the Jews did not understand it this way.  The Jews pursued the promise of righteousness not by faith but by obedience to the law (Romans 9:30-33).  But they were unable to obey perfectly and they knew it.  Therefore, they established loopholes in the law in order to give the appearance of having kept the law.  This is clear from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. 

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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Often people read this text and think that Jesus is holding the Scribes and the Pharisees up as examples of perfect law keepers or nearly so.  However, such is not the case. Jesus says that He has not come to abolish (loosen so as to bring down) the law but to fulfill the law’s precepts.  However, in verse 19 he says that whoever does relax (literally, loosen) is least in the kingdom.  The Scribes and Pharisees were loosening the law in order to give the appearance of having fulfilled the law. Let me put it this way, rather than acknowledging their inability to merit anything before God on the basis of doing they tried to establish their own righteousness on the basis of the law. In this they failed as would any child of Adam. It was Christ who fulfilled the law without loosening its precepts. And only in Christ do we experience freedom from the law’s condemnation.  Only now, in Christ, are we able to joyfully pursue the righteousness found in the law.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He has recently been appointed Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 


[1] Ridderbos, H. N. (1953). The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (pp. 137–138). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


Jeffrey Stivason