The Ten Commandments by Thomas Watson
1.4 The Right Understanding of the Law
'Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.' Exod 20 3.
Before I come to the commandments, I shall answer questions,
and lay down rules respecting the moral law.
What is the difference between the moral law and the gospel?
(1) The law requires that we worship God as our Creator; the
gospel, that we worship him in and through Christ. God in Christ is
propitious; out of him we may see God's power, justice, and
holiness in him we see his mercy displayed.
(2) The moral law requires obedience, but gives no strength (as
Pharaoh required brick, but gave no straw), but the gospel gives
strength; it bestows faith on the elect; it sweetens the law; it
makes us serve God with delight.
Of what use is the moral law to us?
It is a glass to show us our sins, that, seeing our pollution
and misery, we may be forced to flee to Christ to satisfy for former
guilt, and to save from future wrath. 'The law was our schoolmaster
to bring us unto Christ. Gal iii 24.
But is the moral law still in force to believers; is it not
abolished to them?
In some sense it is abolished to believers. (1) In respect of
justification. They are not justified by their obedience to the
moral law. Believers are to make great use of the moral law, but
they must trust only to Christ's righteousness for justification; as
Noah's dove made use of her wings to fly, but trusted to the ark for
safety. If the moral law could justify, what need was there of
Christ's dying? (2) The moral law is abolished to believers, in
respect of its curse. They are freed from its curse and condemnatory
power. 'Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made
a curse for us.' Gal iii13.
How was Christ made a curse for us?
Considered as the Son of God, he was not made a curse, but as
our pledge and surety, he was made a curse for us. Heb vii 22. This
curse was not upon his Godhead, but upon his manhood. It was the
wrath of God lying upon him; and thus he took away from believers
the curse of the law, by being made a curse for them. But though the
moral law be thus far abolished, it remains as a perpetual rule to
believers. Though it be not their Saviour, it is their guide. Though
it be not foedus, a covenant of life; yet it is norma, a rule of
life. Every Christian is bound to conform to it; and to write, as
exactly as he can, after this copy. 'Do we then make void the law
through faith? God forbid.' Rom iii 31. Though a Christian is not
under the condemning power of the law, yet he is under its
commanding power. To love God, to reverence and obey him, is a law
which always binds and will bind in heaven. This I urge against the
Antinomians, who say the moral law is abrogated to believers; which,
as it contradicts Scripture, so it is a key to open the door to all
licentiousness. They who will not have the law to rule them, shall
never have the gospel to save them.
Having answered these questions, I shall in the next place, lay
down some general rules for the right understanding of the
Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. These may serve to give us some
light into the sense and meaning of the commandments.
Rule I. The commands and prohibitions of the moral law reach
the heart. (1) The commands of the moral law reach the heart. The
commandments require not only outward actions, but inward
affections; they require not only the outward act of obedience, but
the inward affection of love. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with
all thine heart.' Deut vi 5.
(2) The threats and prohibitions of the moral law reach the
heart. The law of God forbids not only the act of sin, but the
desire and inclination; not only does it forbid adultery, but
lusting (Matt v 28) not only stealing, but coveting (Rom 7 7).
Lex humana ligat manum, lex divina comprimit animam 'Man's law binds
the hands only, God's law binds the heart.'
Rule 2. In the commandments there is a synecdoche, more is
intended than is spoken. (1) Where any duty is commanded, the
contrary sin is forbidden. When we are commanded to keep the
Sabbath-day holy, we are forbidden to break the Sabbath. When we are
commanded to live in a calling, 'Six days shalt thou labour,' we are
forbidden to live idly, and out of a calling.
(2) Where any sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded.
When we are forbidden to take God's name in vain, the contrary duty,
that we should reverence his name, is commanded. 'That thou mayest
fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord Thy God.' Deut xxviii 58.
Where we are forbidden to wrong our neighbour, there the contrary
duty, that we should do him all the good we can, by vindicating his
name and supplying his wants, is included.
Rule 3. Where any sin is forbidden in the commandment, the
occasion of it is also forbidden. Where murder is forbidden, envy
and rash anger are forbidden, which may occasion it. Where adultery
is forbidden, all that may lead to it is forbidden, as wanton
glances of the eye, or coming into the company of a harlot. 'Come
not nigh the door of her house.' Prov v 8. He who would be free
from the plague, must not come near the infected house. Under the
law the Nazarite was forbidden to drink wine; nor might he eat
grapes of which the wine was made.
Rule 4. In relato subintelligitur correlatum. Where one
relation is named in the commandment, there another relation is
included. Where the child is named, the father is included. Where
the duty of children to parents is mentioned, the duty of parents to
children is also included. Where the child is commanded to honour
the parent, it is implied that the parent is also commanded to
instruct, to love, and to provide for the child.
Rule 5. Where greater sins are forbidden, lesser sins are also
forbidden. Though no sin in its own nature is little, yet one may be
comparatively less than another. Where idolatry is forbidden,
superstition is forbidden, or bringing any innovation into God's
worship, which he has not appointed. As the sons of Aaron were
forbidden to worship an idol, so to sacrifice to God with strange
fire. Lev x 1. Mixture in sacred things, is like a dash in wine,
which though it gives a colour, yet does but debase and adulterate
it. It is highly provoking to God to bring any superstitious
ceremony into his worship which he has not prescribed; it is to tax
God's wisdom, as if he were not wise enough to appoint the manner
how he will be served.
Rule 6. The law of God is entire. Lex est copulativa [The law
is all connected]. The first and second tables are knit together;
piety to God, and equity to our neighbour. These two tables which
God has joined together, must not be put asunder. Try a moral man by
the duties of the first table, piety to God, and there you will find
him negligent; try a hypocrite by the duties of the second table,
equity to his neighbour, and there you will find him tardy. If he
who is strict in the second table neglects the first, or he who is
zealous in the first, neglects the second, his heart is not right
with God. The Pharisees were the highest pretenders to keeping the
first table with zeal and holiness; but Christ detects their
hypocrisy 'Ye have omitted judgement, mercy and faith.' Matt xxiii
23. They were bad in the second table; they omitted judgement, or
being just in their dealings; mercy in relieving the poor; and
faith, or faithfulness in their promises and contracts with men. God
wrote both the tables, and our obedience must set a seal to both.
Rule 7. God's law forbids not only the acting of sin in our own
persons, but being accessory to, or having any hand in, the sins of
How and in what sense may we be said to partake of, and have a
hand in the sins of others?
(1) By decreeing unrighteous decrees, and imposing on others
that which is unlawful. Jeroboam made the people of Israel to sin;
he was accessory to their idolatry by setting up golden calves.
Though David did not in his own person kill Uriah, yet because he
wrote a letter to Joab, to set Uriah in the forefront of the battle,
and it was done by his command, he was accessory to Uriah's death,
and the murder of him was laid by the prophet to his charge. 'Thou
hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword.' 2 Sam xii 9.
(2) We become accessory to the sins of others by not hindering
them when it is in our power. Qui non prohibit cum potest, jubet
[The failure to prevent something, when it lies within your power,
amounts to ordering it]. If a master of a family see his servant
break the Sabbath, or hear him swear, and does not use the power he
has to suppress him, he becomes accessory to his sin. Eli, for not
punishing his sons when they made the offering of the Lord to be
abhorred, made himself guilty. 1 Sam iii 13, 14. He that suffers an
offender to pass unpunished, makes himself an offender.
(3) By counselling, abetting, or provoking others to sin.
Ahithophel made himself guilty of the fact by giving counsel to
Absalom to go in and defile his father's concubines. 2 Sam xvi 21.
He who shall tempt or solicit another to be drunk, though he himself
be sober, yet being the occasion of another's sin, he is accessory
to it. 'Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest
thy bottle to him.' Hab ii 15.
(4) By consenting to another's sin. Saul did not cast one stone
at Stephen, yet the Scripture says, 'Saul was consenting unto his
death.' Acts viii 1. Thus he had a hand in it. If several combined to
murder a man, and should tell another of their intent, and he should
give his consent to it, he would be guilty; for though his hand was
not in the murder, his heart was in it; though he did not act it,
yet he approved it, and so it became his sin.
(5) By example. Vivitur exemplis [We live by example]. Examples
are powerful and cogent. Setting a bad example occasions another to
sin, and so a person becomes accessory. If the father swears, and
the child by his example, learns to swear, the father is accessory
to the child's sin; he taught him by his example. As there are
hereditary diseases, so there are hereditary sins.
Rule 8. The last rule about the commandments is, that though we
cannot, by our own strength, fulfil all these commandments, yet
doing quod posse, what we are able, the Lord has provided
encouragement for us. There is a threefold encouragement.
(1) That though we have not ability to obey any one command,
yet God has in the new covenant, promised to work that in us which
he requires. 'I will cause you to walk in my statutes.' Ezek xxxvi 27.
God commands us to love him. Ah, how weak is our love! It is like
the herb that is yet only in the first degree; but God has promised
to circumcise our hearts, that we may love him. Deut xxx 6. He that
commands us, will enable us. God commands us to turn from sin, but
alas! we have not power to turn; therefore he has promised to turn
us, to put his Spirit within us, and to turn the heart of stone into
flesh. Ezek xxxvi 26. There is nothing in the command, but the same is
in the promise. Therefore, Christian, be not discouraged, though
thou hast no strength of thy own, God will give thee strength. The
iron has no power to move, but when drawn by the loadstone it can
move. 'Thou hast wrought all our works in us.' Isa xxvi 12.
(2) Though we cannot exactly fulfil the moral law, yet God for
Christ's sake will mitigate the rigour of the law, and accept of
something less than he requires. God in the law requires exact
obedience, yet will accept of sincere obedience; he will abate
something of the degree, if there be truth in the inward parts. He
will see the faith, and pass by the failing. The gospel remits the
severity of the moral law.
(3) Wherein our personal obedience comes short, God will be
pleased to accept us in our Surety. 'He has made us accepted in the
Beloved.' Eph i 6. Though our obedience be imperfect, yet, through
Christ our Surety, God looks upon it as perfect. That very service
which God's law might condemn, his mercy is pleased to crown, by
virtue of the blood of our Mediator. Having given you these rules
about the commandments, I shall come next to the commandments