by James MacGregor


The Sabbath Question: Part II


II. Morality of the Decalogue in General

The Decalogue, because a code of moral laws, has lain at the foundation of God’s covenant with His church under both dispensations; and has thus become the instrument of connecting, not only the New Testament with the Old Testament, but the new creation with the old creation, by showing that our Redeemer is the true God and King of the whole moral universe, and that in our redemption He does not forget His holiness, nor cease to be a righteous moral governor, but really “magnifies the law and makes it honourable” when pardoning and blessing the guilty law-breaker.

A moral law is distinct in its nature from a positive law, whether ceremonial or judicial. A positive law is founded on some peculiar circumstances not existing in the nature or constitution of the creature: it binds only those who are in these peculiar circumstances; and them it binds only because it is the express will of the lawgiver. Such, e.g., were among the Jews the ceremonial law of the passover, and the judicial law of the death punishment of Sabbath desecrators. A moral law, on the other hand, is otherwise called natural, because it is based on the nature or constitution of man in his unchangeable relations to God and his neighbour: it binds all men in all ages; and so from its binding them merely because God has declared it, it has been declared by Him because it is obligatory in its own nature. And the question to which I now proceed to speak is this: — Is the Decalogue, or code of “Ten Words,” a code of moral laws, and not merely of positive laws, ceremonial or judicial? Our doctrine of the Decalogue is, that it is a code of moral laws. Sound divines often explain, that they insist on calling it moral or natural only in the sense of its being universally and permanently obligatory. It is obviously only in this sense that the authors of our Confession would emphasise the morality of the Decalogue [Westminster Confession XIX.ii, iii.]

I know, indeed, that some have said that though the Decalogue should be a code of moral laws, yet it may in some sense be abrogated, so as to be no longer obligatory on Christians. But this is not the only case in which nonsense has been talked in behalf of heresy. If the Decalogue really be a code of moral laws, then God on Sinai declared in effect, “This is My view of the duty of man as man, in all nations and ages.” And having said this He never can unsay it, unless He have said what was untrue, or unless He have changed His mind, or unless he have changed the moral constitution of the world as declared by Him on Sinai. The declaration of a moral law is like the placing of a star in the firmament: once placed there, it is never displaced, but shines in the firmament “for ever and ever.” God may have given us new light as to the import of the law, so as to enlarge and complete our conceptions of its heart-searching height, and depth, and length, and breadth. But to talk of the abrogation of a really moral law, is to perpetrate an absurdity as gross as though one had talked of the abrogation of the law of gravitation, or of the multiplication table.

We are now in a condition to look on the Scripture evidence in behalf of our doctrine of the morality of the Decalogue. That evidence is furnished partly by the circumstances in which the law was revealed and preserved.

(1.) Of the revelation of it. It is not merely that Israel had been delivered from Egypt with a strong hand, and miraculously led through the Red Sea and the wilderness to Mount Sinai. The utterance of the Ten Words was attended with circumstances so peculiar as to set them “high on a hill apart” from all the merely positive laws, whether ceremonial or judicial, which the chosen people received on that mountain from their God. The Ten Words were not merely delivered to them by Moses as he had received them from the Lord, but spoken in their hearing by the awful voice of God Himself. After being thus delivered, they were not committed to perishable paper or parchment by the hand of man, but graven by God’s own finger on both sides of two imperishable tables of stone. The law thus revealed was solemnly declared by God to be the foundation of His covenant with Israel: the tables, to be distinctively the tables of His “testimony.”

(2.) Not less impressively significant are the circumstances attending the preservation of the Decalogue. They all remind us of that cry in the fortieth Psalm, “Thy law is within my heart.” Literally, this law was in the heart’s heart of the Old Dispensation: while the Pentateuch was kept on the outside of the ark, the two stony tables were kept in the inside of the ark of the covenant, in that Holy of Holies which was the heart of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. And really, the law has been always within the heart of God’s living temples, the only living temples he has had on the earth since the fall. First, in the heart of the Old Testament Church: not only the law was laid by God at the foundation of her constitution and covenant with Him; but, as we find in the book of Psalms — the utterance of her heart’s experience — that law was ever before her mind’s eye, whether broken or kept, whether hated or loved, as if in the very place of Jehovah the Lawgiver. Second, in the heart of the New Testament Church, which is a temple of the Holy Ghost. In Rom. 13:8-10, we find this divine Spirit writing on her heart the words, “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law,” and again, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” And if we ask what law? We find in the next verse that it is the law of the Decalogue, e.g., its second table, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, viz., Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Again, in James 2:10-12 we find the same Spirit speaking of “The whole law,” “the law of liberty.” And if we ask what law? again He answers, The law of the Decalogue, — producing two of its commandments to illustrate the point he is proving — “For he that said, do not commit adultery, said also, do not kill.”

Third, and last, the greatest of all, it is “within the heart” of Christ, the true living temple, in whom sinful men meet their Saviour God. It is really He (Heb. 10:5-9) who by anticipation uttered that cry in the fortieth Psalm. Thus in His conversation with the rich young nobleman (Matt. 19:17-19) He says, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” The young man asks Him what commandments; and He answers in effect, The commandments of the Decalogue, — producing those commandments of it which are best fitted to serve the practical purpose in His view: “Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother, (and what ‘briefly comprehends’ them all), Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Again, in His sermon on the mount, when giving an outline of the character of His new kingdom as contrasted with the Pharisaic and Sadducean apostasy, He speaks of “commandments” in tones which might make the ears of some pretended Christian ministers in our land and time to tingle — (Matt. 5:17-19): “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I came not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” And if we ask, What commandments are these, receiving this new sanction, more tremendous than the thunders and lightnings of Sinai? again we find that they are at least the commandments of the Decalogue; on three of which (vers. 21, 27, 33), as illustrative samples, He proceeds to comment (21-37), so as to bring out the fullness of their spiritual import.

1. Christians are bound to obey the law declared in the Ten Commandments. This proposition is by no means inconsistent with the reality of that liberty with which Christ has made His people free. Liberty does not consist in the absence of law. In the preface to the Ten Commandments, He declares that He has brought His people “out of the house of bondage”; and yet in the commandments themselves, He goes on to bind His people to obey. It is evident, therefore, that binding of itself does not constitute bondage; that some sort of binding is indispensable to the realised freedom of rational creatures. The liberty of a son is not a disruption of the bond of obligation to obey the father. The filial love is a fountain, longing to rush forth in a stream of obedience. And the law of God creates so many channels in which that love may flow forth freely and gladly in a song of praise; the Ten Commandments are, so to speak, the ten fingers of God, creating the channels, pointing out the courses in which may flow that love which is “the fulfilling of the law.”

2. The “reason annexed” to the fourth commandment in Deut. 5:15 is not the “reason annexed” in Exod. 20:11. “And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence, through a mighty hand, and by a stretched out arm; therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day.” This reason, of course, does not supersede the reason declared in Exod. 20:11. But it supplements it. And this supplementary reason shows these two things: — (1.) The reasonableness of the transposition of the resting day to the week’s beginning from its end. One great reason why we should keep one day in seven as a religious rest is the fact of redemption, or new creation. To exhibit this fact is one leading purpose of our Sabbath observance. And now that the redemption is achieved, this fact is most clearly exhibited by the observance of the first day of the week as the day of weekly rest in God, Creator and Redeemer. (2.) This “reason annexed” reminds us of the fact that it is ransomed men that alone are likely to keep the natural law of the Sabbath. The Gentile nations have shown in their institutions some glimmering reminiscence of a God-given law, commanding the observance of one day in seven as a religious rest. But they have not actually observed it. The day of weekly rest has been really observed only by Old Testament Christians or New Testament Christians. For they alone have seen and felt the superadded obligation to show forth the glory of God as Creator, arising from the fact that the God who is the Creator of all is the Redeemer of His “peculiar people.”

But this superadded “reason annexed” to the fourth commandment is but a special application of the preface to all the Ten Commandments. Christians should be peculiarly faithful in obeying the whole moral law, as a thank-offering to Him, not only as Creator, but also and especially as Redeemer. I have always admired the division of theology in the Heidelberg Catechism. Theologians have often been perplexed with the question, what place they should give in their systems to the Decalogue, — a perplexity which does not, perhaps, redound to the credit of their systems. But the Heidelberg Catechism very nobly resolves the vexed question thus: — It arranges the whole system of revealed truth under three heads, —our Ruin, our Redemption, and our Gratitude. And under the third head, of our Gratitude, it places the Ten Commandments of the Decalogue. This is not the whole truth; for (as is indicated by the “reason annexed” to the fourth commandment in Exod. 20:11), we are bound to keep the laws of the Decalogue even by nature. But it is a very important part of the truth; for (as we learn from the “reason annexed” to that commandment in Deut. 5:15, and from the preface to all the commandments in Exod. 20:2), we are laid under special superadded obligation to obey the natural law by the fact that God is not only our God and Creator, but also our Redeemer. He, therefore, who shall decry the commandments on the ground of his being eminently Christian, “knows not what manner of spirit he is of.” The only effect of our being Christians, in respect to the Ten Commandments as a rule of life, is to lay us under a new and superadded obligation to keep them, in order to show forth the praise of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light — who has brought us out of the true spiritual Egypt, and made us in spirit the true “Israel of God.”

3. We should be thankful for this preternatural revelation of natural law, or positive declaration of the law which is moral. In all men there does remain indefeasibly a conscience which speaks of some law written on their hearts. And the Pagan philosophers have occasionally lighted on some general principle which might have led men to the knowledge of good rules of life in relation to their neighbour: e.g., the Stoical maxim, “Regard yourself as one monad in a system of monads,” though immeasurably inferior to “the royal law of love,” is at least as good as the Kantian rule, “Act from a maxim fit to be law in a system of universal legislation.” But in point of fact, the nations left to themselves did not actually know and honour those plain moral laws which we — thanks to God in the Bible, educating our conscience by His word — have learned to regard as palpably self-evident. Thus, the whole of the first table has been a dead letter among Pagans in general. And there is no precept of the second table which has not been ignored or forgotten by some, at least, of the nations which know not God in Christ. We need a preternatural revelation in order even that plain laws of natural morality may be known and observed among the peoples.

Hardly less important is the Decalogue as a testimony to our unholiness. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” The vague Antinomian cant on which I have commented is little likely to lay sinners low in the dust, convinced of their guilt and depravity, and thus ready for the grace which He gives to the lowly, who hunger and thirst for His righteousness in Christ. The pantheism of which that cant is the unconscious echo formally destroys the very idea of moral law, and its correlate ideas of sin, and guilt, and depravity, and righteousness, and justification, and sanctification to life — in short, virtually declares that the saving doctrines of the gospel are not only untrue, but meaningless or absurd. And this pantheism is destroyed by the thunderbolts of Sinai, as well as by the sacrifice on Calvary. On these two mountains we see the personality and holiness of God, and the correlate personality and responsibility of man, clear as the noonday, in heaven’s own light of righteous wrath and redeeming love. But no man can see what God shows on Calvary, of true redeeming love, who has not first looked up, trembling and adoring, to the revelation of His holiness on Sinai. And thus the “Ten Words” are always needed, not only for the regulation of the life of God’s children, but also as a schoolmaster to lead those who now are lost to feel that they are lost, depraved and guilty — and bring them as convicted sinners to Christ, and through Christ to their lost life in God.


James MacGregor (1830-1894) trained for the ministry under William Cunningham, whom he regarded as Scotland’s master theologian. After MacGregor had been a pastor for ten years, he was called in 1868 to the chair of systematic theology at the Free Church College, Edinburgh, in succession to James Buchanan. He responded to rising errors of his day by writing in defense of the Sabbath and against Amyrauldianism. Illness forced him to migrate to New Zealand in 1881, where he was again the pastor of a church, and published expositions of the confessional teaching about election and eternal punishment. The following material is excerpted from his book, The Sabbath Question, Historical, Scriptural, and Practical (Edinburgh 1866).

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