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The Ten Commandments and Non-believers

The Ten Commandments and non-believers

A few weeks ago I made a presentation at the Shepherd's Conference with this point: when Gentiles die, they are not going to be judged based upon the standard seen in the 10 commandments. I made much of the concept that when both the Old Testament and the New Testament use the word "law," it generally does not mean simply the imperatives in Exodus-Deuteronomy, and it almost never means "the ten commandments."

As Mike explained quite well yesterday, the laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai were given to Moses and then Israel entered into a covenant with God to keep them. Gentiles were never held to that standard. Gentiles in Egypt, for example, will not be judged for working on a Saturday. My main point was simply that Gentiles are on their way to hell not for violating the Ten Commandments, but for sinning. And sin is not a falling short of the Ten Commandments, but is rather an action contrary to God' nature.

I grant that there is much overlap between those two categories. Murder is falling short of the divine standard, and it also happens to be a violation of the sixth commandment. Adultery is sinful because it is contrary to the law of God. Gentiles know this because it is revealed in their conscience, while Jews had an even more sure means of recognizing that sin; the seventh commandment.

But attempts to apply the Ten Commandments to non-believers today have never been hermeneutically convincing to me. The most obvious example is the Sabbath. When you are evangelizing, does it even make sense to ask someone if they have ever broken the Sabbath by working on a Saturday? (or, is it a Sunday?). Did they ever rescue the neighbor's cat from a tree on the weekend?

And the limitations posed by the fourth commandment is applicable to some of the other nine as well. People often point out that 9 of the 10 are repeated in the NT. Even if that is true (I have third and fourth commandment issues with that stat), that very approach demonstrates that the NT is the authority for Christian ethics. If you grant that the repition of a commandment in the NT makes it binding on believers (or unbeleivers, as the case may be), then you are granting that the moral authority is not in the Ten Commandments–or other parts of the Mosaic Law–but in the Law of Christ.

The third commandment also shows the limits of the attempt to catapult the Ten Commandments from Sinai to suburbia. Taking Yahweh's name in vain is not something you do when you hit your thumb with a hammer and sound like a sailor. Should a person use God's name as a curse word? Obviously not; it is sinful, disrespectful, blasphemous, and simultaneously ignorant and arrogant.

Yet it is all those apart from the third commandment.

The third commandment bans the "taking of Yahweh's name in vain." The word generally translated "to take" is nahsa, and it has as its main meaning to "lift up." Vain simply means in an empty way. So the third commandment is a prohibition to the Israelites. They are not allowed to lift up the name of Yahweh while living an empty and godless life. If they are going to identify themselves as Israelites, then they better honor the God of Israel with their life. If they lift his name up like a flag over their army, then their army better be sanctified.

With that understanding, it would be nonsense to suppose an Egyptian could take Yahweh's name in vain while calling himself a worshiper of Pharaoh and the river gods. But if an Egyptian soldier defects and converts, like the slave in 1 Samuel 30, then his newfound life should match his newly minted confession. But other than the gentile convert, the third commandment obviously is limited by nationality in the OT. It makes sense in a nationalistic context, where people are circumcised to express their covenant relationship with God.

I suppose that the truth of the third commandment does translate by analogy to the church age. If someone claims to follow Christ with their lips, but denies him with their life, then by analogy they are in violation of the third commandment. But they have bigger problems than that. They are in danger of being delivered over to Satan (1 Tim 1:20), dying every time they take communion (1 Cor 11:30), and they are living in rebellion against the commands in the NT. By living in open sin, they are scorning the Lord who bought them, and making a mockery of the Law of liberty. The judge is at the door though, and the parable of the wheat and the tares speaks to these people. To make their disobedience a third commandment issue sort of misses the point.

This is true with many other commandments as well. The prohibition against "bearing false witness against your neighbor" has specific Mosaic connection to the way Israelites were to settle disputes. It has more to do with land markers and cities of refuge than asking people if they have ever told a white lie. Listen: lying is wrong because God is the author of truth. He despises lying lips, will cast liars to hell, and any lie is an attack on his goodness, as well as the doctrine of providence. This is why your conscience torments you when you distort the truth. To tell a non-believer today that he is going to hell for violating the ninth commandment minimizes his sin by making it contrary to a commandment, rather than contrary to the creator.

Idolatry is another example. The second commandment tells the Israelites that they are not to make any image of God, and they are not to worship anything from the quarry, the blacksmith, or the lumber yard. In the NT, idolatry is one of the marks of the absolute folly of rejecting God (Rom 1:23). People who worship idols confess they are fools and that they hate the real God. Their conscience (as well as common sense) reveals this to them, and they will be judged for mocking God-and this is completely independent of the second commandment.

When Paul speaks the Athenians in Acts 17, he mocks their idolatry. He compares them to people groping in the dark for a light, and Paul claims to know their chief God, whom they are unable to simply name. He is certainly confronting their idolatry, but he is not rebuking them for violating the second commandment. He is confronting sin without brining out Mosaic law.

Other writers take the theme of idolatry and apply it to believers. Worshiping anything other than God is considered idolatry. Allowing anything to lure you away from the first love of Jesus Christ is insane, and leads to spiritual suicide. If Jesus is the author of life, and if every good and perfect gift comes from above, then he demands our absolute allegiance and in exchange will demonstrate his absolute sufficiency. The temptation to look for satisfaction somewhere else is alluring (our hearts are idol factories, after all), and the NT warns believers away from this spiritual insanity.

But even this commandment shows that the use of the Ten Commandments in evangelism is often a wrong approach. A person who confesses to loving something more than God is not confessing to having broken the second commandment. They are confessing to exchanging the glory of God for a lie, and worshiping a God of their own making. The second commandment will be the least of their worries when they are faced with the Son of Man coming back in the clouds, wielding a sword.

I think the ten commandments have an almost infinite depth to them. There are heart issues that are addressed so sucienctly, and they serve as an introduction to the rest of the Torah. God's moral law transcends them, of course, but studying them always shows you how holy God is, and how wise is law is. But this profound truth is not helped by attempts to apply those ten commandments in ways that don't honor the orriginal authorial intent.

Contrary to what my previous posts may lead you to think, I do sometimes use the ten commandments in evangelism. But I recognize that I use them because they are succinct, and because often Americans recognize them as valid expressions of God's law. I use them with the understanding that they are being used by analogy, and that I am not using them the way God gave them, but rather I am borrowing the moral principles they give (which are true, as they are reflective of God's transcendent moral law) and using them to confront sin.

But I know that people are on their way to hell for rejecting God, and specifically for rejecting God in the person of Jesus Christ…NOT for breaking the laws given to Israel on Mt. Sinai. People are judged by God, and the standard is not ten-fold, but singular. Has their life fallen short of the glory of God as revealed in their conscience, and in the person of Jesus Christ?

The standard is perfection, and the only way for salvation is through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God opened up the door for eternal life by taking our sins and imputing them to Jesus. The sins which were transferred from us to him include every thing we have ever done that falls short of complete holiness. To limit God's moral law to the Ten Commandments is to lower the bar in a way that is just simply not seen in the evangelism portrayed in the New Testament.