If most Christians were asked if they should keep the Ten Commandments, they would answer, “Of course!”
Fundamentally, that answer is correct and reflects the wisdom of the ages, the wisdom that has been passed on from the early church to our own day. And yet the question is more complex than it appears at first glance. As the subtitle of this article implies, the Ten Commandments (literally the “Ten Words” in Hebrew) must be understood in light of the covenant in which they were given. The Ten Commandments must be read in context, and that means they must be read in a covenantal context.
The Ten Commandments were given to Israel on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1–17), when Yahweh instituted a covenant with the people of Israel after delivering them from Egypt. These commands were repeated again in Deuteronomy 5 before they were about to enter the Promised Land.
The Ten Words were given to Israel in a gracious context since Yahweh had borne them “on eagles’ wings” and freed them from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 19:4; 20:2). First came grace, then demand, and the demands weren’t a ladder to establish a relationship with the Lord but an expression of their devotion to Yahweh for his wondrous love.
When we read particular texts in the Scriptures, we must always read them in light of the overall story of redemption. The unfolding story is one where God progressively unveils his person, his ways, and his will to his people. The progressive nature of revelation has often been compared to an acorn and an oak tree, where we begin with the acorn that grows into a mighty oak. The illustration is helpful because there is an organic relationship among the various covenants.
Scholars dispute about how many major covenants exist in the Scriptures, but there is good evidence for the following covenants: the creation covenant, the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Israel (Mosaic), the covenant with David, and the new covenant.
There is an organic relationship among the covenants, but it doesn’t follow from this that the covenants are all the same or that the same regulations are mandated in all the covenants. As the story of redemption progresses, we find that there is both continuity and discontinuity among the covenants. Tracing out where the continuity and discontinuity lies isn’t easy, which explains why believers who love God’s word differ on how to “put the Bible together,” so to speak. Therefore, we have dispensationalists, covenant theologians, and progressive covenantalists, some of them Baptist or Presbyterian, others Lutheran or Mennonite.
To return to the question before us, the Ten Words belong to the corporate covenant made with Israel. The covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai, however, is the old covenant, and Jeremiah declares that God will make “a new covenant” with his people (Jeremiah 31:31 CSB — and hereafter), and the covenant won’t be “like the covenant I made with their ancestors” (Jeremiah 31:32). The Lord will write his law on the hearts of his people and forgive their sins (Jeremiah 31:33–34). The Lord promises in Ezekiel that he will place his Spirit within his people and that they will keep his statutes and ordinances (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
Jesus instituted the new covenant with his death and resurrection (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), and Paul designates himself as a minister of the “new covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:6). The coming of the new covenant means that believers are no longer under “the old covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:14).
The old covenant was made with Israel as a people, and Israel was a theocracy, a kind of state-church where the Lord reigned over his people. It was both a civil and a religious entity. In the new covenant, the people of the Lord are not limited to Israel, but in fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, all peoples are now included (Genesis 12:3). In the new covenant, people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) are members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19). The church isn’t identified with any particular nation but consists of people from every nation.
To recap, the inauguration of the new covenant means that the old covenant has passed away. Hebrews 8:13 makes this very clear: “By saying a new covenant, he has declared that the first is obsolete.” Paul teaches the same truth in Galatians. The reason the Galatians don’t need to be circumcised is that they are no longer under the old covenant, and thus the stipulations of that covenant don’t apply to them.
The promise and covenant with Abraham were fundamental, and the law given to Israel was a subsidiary and interim covenant, never intended to be in force forever (Galatians 3:15–18). The law that represents the covenant with Israel lasted only until the promised offspring — Jesus — arrived (Galatians 3:19).
That law-covenant was our pedagogue, our babysitter, our guardian until the coming of Christ (Galatians 3:24). Now that “faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:25). The law, which was integral to the covenant with Israel, has passed away with its commands and regulations (Ephesians 2:15). Believers have died to the law since they have died with Christ (Romans 7:4).
Since believers are not under the old covenant, they are no longer bound to the stipulations of that covenant. Believers are not required to circumcise their children to belong to the people of God (Leviticus 12:3). Temple worship and animal sacrifices, which are impossible in any case since the temple doesn’t exist, are passé because Christ is the true temple, and he is also the final and definitive sacrifice (as Hebrews 9–10 teaches). Believers must not offer animal sacrifices because doing so constitutes repudiation of the definitive and final sacrifice of Christ. Believers are not required to observe Old Testament food laws (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) or Old Testament feasts (like Passover) because those regulations belong to the covenant made with Israel.
Some might be nodding in agreement while also observing that all the above examples stem from the ceremonial law. They might reply that the Ten Commandments are distinct because they belong to the moral law, and moral norms are transcendent. My response to such a stance is both “yes” and “no.”
Let’s consider the “no” answer first, and in doing so, we recognize that the answer is complex. The covenant with Israel is a package. We must not, and cannot, separate the stipulations of the covenant from the covenant in which they stand. The passing away of the old covenant means the stipulations of that covenant pass away too! Thus, the Ten Commandments as expressed in their original context have passed away because they are requirements found in a covenant made with Israel that is no longer in force.
Still, it doesn’t follow that the Ten Commandments cease to be authoritative for believers. We discern God’s will and moral norms from the entire storyline of the Bible, which culminates with the new covenant and the coming of the Christ. When we read the whole of God’s revelation, we see that the law of Christ rather than the law of Moses constitutes our authority (Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:21).
Space is lacking to explore the law of Christ in detail, but it is explained well in an excellent article by Stephen Wellum. The law of Christ is discerned by reading the Scriptures covenantally, by paying attention to the fulfillment in Christ, by seeing the ethical norms in the New Testament. The heart and soul of the law of Christ is love for one another (John 13:34–35). The law of Christ never transgresses moral norms, but love involves more than keeping moral norms.
Now we are at the crucial point in the argument. We know nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the new covenant, in the New Testament.
The reason these commands are in force is not because they belong to the Ten Commandments, since those commands are part of the covenant made with Israel that has passed away. The nine commandments are to be obeyed because they express the will of God, because they express transcendent moral norms, and we know they apply to us today because they are repeated in the New Testament. If we were to seek out a deeper reason for the universality of these commands, the reason for their continuing force is that they express God’s character.
The one commandment under dispute, of course, is the Sabbath, and fine Christians disagree on the status of the Sabbath. While reading the Bible, we discover that the early church disagreed about the Sabbath as well (Romans 14:5). Still, Paul places the Sabbath along with Old Testament sacrifices as a shadow, and the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16–17). Christ is our true Sabbath rest (Matthew 11:28–30), pointing to our final rest (Hebrews 4:1–11; find a fuller discussion in the article “Is the Sabbath Still Required for Christians?”).
So, are the Ten Commandments for Christians?
It isn’t wrong to say that nine of the Ten Commandments constitute God’s will for us since they are moral norms, but we see that they constitute God’s will from reading the whole covenantal storyline of Scripture and from placing them in their proper covenantal context. As Christians, we can’t simply cherry-pick the Ten Commandments from their old-covenant context and claim that they are mandatory for us today.
To be clear, the view of the Ten Commandments here is not antinomian (against law) but reflects a covenantal reading of both the Old and New Testaments. Actually, even though theologians get there by different paths, we agree that nine of the Ten Commandments represent God’s will for believers today. When it comes to the Sabbath, the words of Paul apply to us today: “Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). But as it pertains to loving God with our all, our neighbor as ourselves, and each other as Christ loved us, let us be of one mind.