Do the 10 Commandments need to be updated—or upheld? How do the ancient laws included in the 10 Commandments apply today?
You may have heard back in 2008 that Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti felt the Catholics’ seven deadly sins needed to be updated. According to the BBC report, he wanted to add things like environmental pollution, genetic manipulation, accumulating excessive wealth and drug trafficking and consumption to his new list. (The old list, including gluttony, greed and sloth, is traced back to Pope Gregory I in A.D. 590.)
What about the 10 Commandments? They are much older. They were given by God on Mount Sinai about 3,500 years ago. Actually, though, they are much older, considering that Abraham obeyed God’s commandments hundreds of years earlier (Genesis 26:5).
Did Jesus Christ replace or update them? Do they need an update today? Or do they provide timeless, foundational principles that help us know and choose right actions—and thoughts—over wrong behaviors and mind-sets? Do they help us see how to love our neighbors and how to love God—the way He wants to be loved?
What the Bible says about the 10 Commandments
Jesus said He didn’t come “to destroy the Law or the Prophets,” what we call the Old Testament today (Matthew 5:17-19). He didn’t annul the 10 Commandments. He taught their deeper, spiritual application.
When asked which commandment was the greatest, He summarized the 10 Commandments and the whole Bible this way: “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus showed the spiritual intent of the 10 Commandments. The first four show how to love God the way He wants to be loved. The last six show how to love our neighbors.
Jesus also said, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). When asked which commandments, He listed five of the 10 Commandments, along with the summary statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verses 18-19).
The apostle Paul said, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. … For we know that the law is spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). How can the natural, fleshly man learn and obey this holy, spiritual law? Paul showed that this is made possible through Jesus Christ and by being led by the Holy Spirit (Romans 7:25; 8:7-9, 14).
Jesus Christ not only paid the death penalty for our sins (Romans 5:9; 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:18-19), He showed the way and will provide us help to follow God’s good and beneficial way of life—the way of love. We must seek to change, to walk as He walks and to love as He loves (1 John 2:6; John 13:34). Paul shows that the law is designed to teach us how to love (Romans 13:9-10). Love is the spiritual intent of the law.
The problem is not the law, but our weak flesh. But through the Holy Spirit God helps us overcome that obstacle by writing the law in our hearts and minds as we diligently study and seek to obey His law (Hebrews 8:8-10). This is the heart of the New Covenant.
James also expands on the spiritual intent of the 10 Commandments. He called God’s law the royal law (James 2:8). How is it a “royal law”? It is the law of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus Christ will return as King of Kings in that Kingdom (Revelation 19:16).
James also called it the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25; 2:12). James compares the law with a mirror (1:23-25). Just looking in the mirror—just knowing the perfect law of God—is not enough. We must use God’s help to make the changes in ourselves and show the love to others and God that the law shows us.
Some have looked at God’s law as bondage—as a heavy burden they feel God eventually sent Jesus to remove from us. But the Bible clearly shows the perfect, eternal, spiritual law of God is a law of liberty:
- John said, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
- The psalmist wrote, “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who delights greatly in His commandments” (Psalm 112:1).
- Paul wrote, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19).
Which laws were superseded?
Physical circumcision is not part of the 10 Commandments and is clearly shown in the New Testament to have been superseded by spiritual circumcision—a change of heart (Romans 2:29). Later, the book of Hebrews shows that the sacrifices and temple rituals have been superseded by Christ’s sacrifice. They and the civil law (specific regulations necessary to govern the nation of Israel) generally cannot and need not be practiced by Christians today. But even these give us principles and lessons we can apply today.
The eternal spiritual law remains as the framework for a moral, godly life. The laws and principles taught throughout the Bible are consistent and still guide the Christian today.
What was the real bondage?
Jesus Christ made clear what the real burden and bondage is: Slavery to sin. The truth makes us free from slavery to sin (John 8:31-36).
God’s truth is revealed throughout the Bible, which Paul explained was “given by inspiration”—literally, “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (3:15).
So why does it seem Paul sometimes put down the law? Some of these passages take careful study, but most become clearer by considering some key arguments that Paul was making:
- Gentiles don’t have to become Jews (especially, be circumcised) to be Christians.
- No amount of law keeping now can remove past sin or pay our death penalty.
The apostle Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture, but acknowledged that Paul’s epistles include “some things hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). In examining difficult-to-understand scriptures, remember that Paul also called the law holy, just and good (Romans 7:12). And he said, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2).
So, we can only be made right with God by the gracious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Nothing we can do can “earn” forgiveness. But after seeing how horrible sin is—seeing how good and beneficial God’s laws are—seeing how much God hates sin and how much He loves us—the only correct response is to do what Christ told the woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
The 10 Commandments are a wonderful gift from God, and each is worthy of study and meditation. Read a short study of each commandment in this section: “The 10 Commandments and God's Way of Life.”