“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him,…if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments…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, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Matthew 19:16-19.
When speaking of the commandments, Christ only mentions the second table, those that pertain to our duty to man, and he leaves out the first table, those that pertain to our duty to God. Why is this? John Calvin and Augustine answer this question.
Why, in the Gospels and Epistles, the latter table only mentioned, and not the first. The same thing occurs in the Prophets.
52. As, in giving a summary of the Law, Christ and the Apostles sometimes omit the First Table, very many fall into the mistake of supposing that their words apply to both tables. In Matthew, Christ calls “judgment, mercy, and faith,” the “weightier matters of the Law.” I think it clear, that by faith is here meant veracity towards men. But in order to extend the words to the whole Law, some take it for piety towards God. This is surely to no purpose. For Christ is speaking of those works by which a man ought to approve himself as just. If we attend to this, we will cease to wonder why, elsewhere, when asked by the young man, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” he simply answers, that he must keep the commandments, “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, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” (Mt. 19:16, 18). For the obedience of the First Table consisted almost entirely either in the internal affection of the heart, or in ceremonies. The affection of the heart was not visible, and hypocrites were diligent in the observance of ceremonies; but the works of charity were of such a nature as to be a solid attestation of righteousness. The same thing occurs so frequently in the Prophets, that it must be familiar to every one who has any tolerable acquaintance with them (Is. 1:17; 57:6; Jer. 7:5, 6; Ezek. 18:7, 8; Hosea 6:6; Zech. 7:9, 10). For, almost on every occasion, when they exhort men to repentance, omitting the First Table, they insist on faith, judgment, mercy, and equity. Nor do they, in this way, omit the fear of God. They only require a serious proof of it from its signs. It is well known, indeed, that when they treat of the Law, they generally insist on the Second Table, because therein the cultivation of righteousness and integrity is best manifested. There is no occasion to quote passages. Every one can easily for himself perceive the truth of my observation.
An objection to what is said in the former section removed.
53. Is it then true, you will ask, that it is a more complete summary of righteousness to live innocently with men, than piously towards God? By no means; but because no man, as a matter of course, observes charity in all respects, unless he seriously fear God, such observance is a proof of piety also. To this we may add, that the Lord, well knowing that none of our good deeds can reach him (as the Psalmist declares, Psalm 16:2), does not demand from us duties towards himself, but exercises us in good works towards our neighbour. Hence the Apostle, not without cause, makes the whole perfection of the saints to consist in charity (Eph. 3:19; Col. 3:14). And in another passage, he not improperly calls it the “fulfilling of the law,” adding, that “he that loveth another has fulfilled the law,” (Rom. 13:8). And again, “All the law is fulfilled in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” (Gal. 5:14). For this is the very thing which Christ himself teaches when he says, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets,” (Mt. 7:12). It is certain that, in the law and the prophets, faith, and whatever pertains to the due worship of God, holds the first place, and that to this charity is made subordinate; but our Lord means, that in the Law the observance of justice and equity towards men is prescribed as the means which we are to employ in testifying a pious fear of God, if we truly possess it.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, ch. 8, sections 52-53.
Commenting on Galatians 5:14, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, Augustine likewise points out:
45. But why, one might ask, has the Apostle mentioned only the love of neighbor here when speaking of the fulfilment of the law? Likewise when dealing with the same issue in the letter to the Romans he says: “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom. 13:8-10).
(2) Since in fact love is only made perfect through the two commands of love of God and neighbour, why is it that in both letters the Apostle mentions only the love of neighbour, unless it is because people can lie about their love of God, since it is put to the test less often, but they are more easily found guilty of not loving their neighbour when they behave wickedly towards others?
(3) Moreover, it follows that a person who loves God with all his heart, all his soul, and all his mind, also loves his neighbour as himself, because the one whom he loves with all his heart, all his soul, and all his mind told him to do so.
(4) Similarly, who can love his neighbour—that is, everyone—as himself, if he does not love God, by whose command and gift he is able to fulfill the love of neighbour?
(5) Since therefore neither command can be kept without the other, in a question of works of righteousness it is usually enough to mention just one of them, but it is more appropriate to mention the one on the basis of which a person is more easily found guilty.
(6) For this reason John also says: “For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20).
(7) For certain people were lying when they said they had love for God, but they were found guilty of not having it by their hatred of fellow Christians, a hatred easily judged on the basis of daily life and morality.
(8) “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15), for above all it was this vice of rivalry and envy that was fueling destructive disputes among them, when they spoke evilly of one another and each sought his own glory and empty victory. Such partisan feelings consume a people’s fellowship by tearing it to pieces.
(9) But how can they avoid such consequences unless they walk in the Spirit and do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16)? For the first and great gift of the Spirit is humility and gentleness.
(10) Hence the saying of the Lord that I quoted earlier: “learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29), and that of the prophet: On whom does my Spirit rest? On one who is humble and quiet and trembles at my words (Isa. 66:2).