The Ten Words of the Covenant
After we sing the first song, a song of praise to our great God and Saviour, we listen to the Ten Commandments, also known as, the Ten Words of the Covenant or, the Law. Why do we do that every Sunday again?
The law of God has a two-fold function for us as Christians. The Heidelberg Catechism points that out in a very clear way. In Lord's Day 2, under the heading of Our Sin and Misery, we are asked, “From where do you know your sins and misery?” We answer, “From the law of God.” God’s law is given there in the summary form the Lord Jesus taught, love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself. The catechism could have, at that point, given the Ten Commandments, but since these are spelled out in detail later in the catechism, the law is given here in summary form. The law of love sets a high standard, one we could not, would not and did not keep. Hence, we needed, and were given, the Saviour Jesus Christ.
The second way the law of God functions for us is as a rule for thankful living. This is spelled out extensively in the third part of the Heidelberg Catechism, the part dealing with our thankfulness. The second part of the catechism proclaims the gospel of salvation through Christ, and then the third part teaches us how to live in thankfulness for that salvation. Over a dozen Lord's Days (32-44) each commandment is treated separately and held up as solid teaching on how to live according to the specific commandments out of thankfulness and in a way in which we indeed show that we love God and neighbour.
When we gather for worship and hear the Ten Commandments, it’s good to keep these two functions of the law in mind. It is not the case that we gather as unforgiven people who yet need to have their sins forgiven. We need to understand that well. We gather as the people of God who have been set free from guilt and sin by the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. When we, as the forgiven covenant people of God, hear the law read, we are reminded of what Christ has saved us from. We are reminded of our great and continuing need of Jesus Christ. As we hear the law, we are reminded of God’s high demand for obedience, our sin against the holy law of God, and we remember that the Lord Jesus came to give himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Then the second function of the law comes into view. It is set forth as a rule for thankful living, a standard for gratitude.
After the reading of the law, I usually refer to a text of scripture that speaks about one of these blessed truths–either a text that underlines what Jesus has done to cleanse us of our sins, or a text that encourages us to live thankful lives.
Because of these two functions, there has been discussion in the past as to where in the service the law should be read. Abraham Kuyper, for example, wrote in Our Worship that the law should be read after the sermon. God’s people should be sent back into the world after having heard and been reminded of this rule for thankful living. Interesting.
Wherever it fits best liturgically, let us always remember who we are, the people called by God and cleansed with the blood of Christ. Let us go forward with the law of God on our lips knowing that the law no longer condemns us but teaches us to live obedient lives out of thankfulness for the mercy God has shown us in Christ our Lord.