In thinking about the difficulties many Christians, even in confessional Reformed circles, encounter with understanding the law of God and our relationship to it, I was certain a past theologian or minister of the Gospel had surely addressed this in a concise, precise and clear manner.
Sure enough, I found A Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments by James Durham (1622–1658), to be a superb example of this very thing. The challenge being that Durham’s writing, while praised by John Owen in his Epistle to the reader of Durham’s work for his “plainness and perspicuity in teaching…throughout the whole book,” is a bit higher than the reading level of the typical layperson.
To that end, I am hoping to convey the marrow of Durham’s meaning pertaining to a few sections of the work in simpler language and with some added explanatory material. I will humbly accept correction for any misapprehension of Durham’s meaning I might unintentionally convey.
Durham is brilliant in bringing God’s own preface to the Ten Commandments to bear as his preface to the whole work and explaining his motives for producing it.
“And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:1-2
Durham notes the excellency of this Scripture, [paraphrased] “it being intended by the Lord Himself as a comprehensive sum of is people’s duty and commended to us from this: that though all the Scripture is His word, this is such in a singular way. He spoke all these words Himself, and by His own voice. He pronounced them firs to His people, and afterward twice by His finger, immediately—without use of a human writer, as in other Scriptures.“
These words were to be treasured, kept in the Ark (Deut 10:2, 5), to be learned (Deut 5:1), written on their door posts and diligently pressed on their children (Deut 6:7-10). The Lord also shows their importance by the constant insistence of our living according to them by prophets, Apostles and the Lord Jesus Himself (Matt 5-7).
He goes on to point out the importance of the law so that we would know what is pleasing for God, that we can be equipped for duty to Him. Likewise, that we would know what displeases God and how to avoid doing so. And further that we would be “stirred up to repentance” when we have fallen into His displeasure by our breaking that law. It is a property of the law that it brings knowledge of sin (Rom 7:7) and “so likewise the knowledge of duty.” Note well: there is no knowing of one without the other. It is succinct to make it easier to carry in the memory and the heart and is recommended (Deut 5:1) to be learned as a rule “of men’s walking.“
And here Durham states the great problem of many Christians today, [paraphrasing] “And yet it is so comprehensive that without diligent effort to understand it, men cannot help but come up short of the great scope of it.“
Thirdly, Durham points to the ignorance of many who sin unknowingly, and this brings about sad effects of 1. Men are not convicted of their sin, 2. There is little repentance of sin. 3. There is false security, presumption, confidence in self-righteousness. And that is not that men think they have earned righteousness with God but rather that they are indeed pleasing Him when the are very much doing the opposite. Durham further cites that the ignorance of the Spiritual nature of the law among the Jews caused many of them to neglect the most important part of holiness and proudly settle on self-righteousness which is a slight to Christ the Mediator, who is the end of the law for righteousness for all that believe (Rom 10:4).
Key conclusions Durham draws from the preface to the Ten Commandments:
1. The first conclusion that we take for granted, is that this law is moral and binds Christians and believers now, as it did before Christ. This is proven because He who is God the Lawgiver here is the Angel [messenger] Christ of Acts 7:38, and it is His Word (as is clear from Acts 7:30-31). Also, because the law was binding on Adam before given formally, and that is because the obligation of the law on God’s creatures cannot be separated from its very nature, even though men’s ability to reason correctly has been damaged since the fall. Therefore, Christ was so far from destroying the authority of the law, and Paul so far from voiding it by the doctrine of faith, that Christ says he came to fulfill it (Matt 5:17) and Paul shows that his preaching faith was done to establish the law (Rom 3:31). The truth both confirm by their practice and doctrine shows that the breaking of God’s holy law is no less sinful now than before Christ.
2. Though the law, and obedience to it, is obligatory for the Christian, it is not put upon them for a covenant of works or that they can seek or expect justification by it. On the contrary, to overturn self-righteousness by it which manifests sin and of itself works wrath. This is further made clear in that God (Ex 20:1) is called “our God,” which He cannot be to sinners but by grace. And it also is apparent by His owning of this sinful people as His, and his including many ceremonies and sacrifices that point to Christ as part of the law, and by his adding the law on Sinai as a help to the covenant made with Abraham (Gen 17, which was a covenant of grace and was never altered as to its substance), in which the people of Israel as the seed of Abraham are understood to be in that covenant. Therefore, it should be clear that the Lord never intended by his covenant that his people would obtain righteousness by the law, but only that the law should be useful in the hand of grace to make the covenant with Abraham effectual. So, though we are bound to obey the law, we are not to seek righteousness or life by the duties it requires of us.
3. Both ministers preaching the law and people carrying it out do so with subordination to Christ, and that the duties called for are part of the covenant of grace and of the obligations of that covenant. And so, all of our obedience to God must be considered in light of that covenant, not the covenant of works with Adam.
Many naturally ask about how to put this into practice without falling into the pit of works-righteousness and to perform the obligations of the law with respect to their application in the Covenant of Grace. Durham wisely respond in that the two approaches to the obligations of the law (Covenant of Works vs. Covenant of Grace) differ in 4 key ways which prove we are not only to do them but to do so in a way consistent with and flowing from Christ and His grace. God calls himself his people’s Redeemer, for the object of our duty and motive for obedience:
1. The two approaches differ by the purpose for which they are performed. We are not to perform the duties of the law so that life, pardon or enjoying of God can be obtained by our merit, but to testify our respect to Him who has provided these already freely for us, so we should not rest in the duties that are part of that same covenant that gave the blessings.
2. The approaches differ in the principle by which we are acting to perform them. It is not in our own strength as the works of the first covenant (of works with Adam) were to be performed, but in the strength of grace and by virtue of the promises of our sanctification in the second covenant (of grace made with Abraham). Note: God uses means (conforming us to Christ, who kept the law perfectly) to achieve His ends (sanctification).
3. The approaches differ in what makes them accepted by God. Duties done according to the Covenant of Works were to be tried and measured on their own worth or merit and would have required them to have inherent perfection. Those works would then be judged by their conformance to God’s law. But in the Covenant of Grace, the acceptance of our works, prayers and praises are founded on Christ’s righteousness and God’s mercy in Him. And it is only in Christ that these duties performed are accepted as sweet-smelling sacrifices, as we are. He has made us to be accepted, “only in the beloved.” (Eph 1:4)
4. The approaches differ in respect of the motive from which they proceed. The great motive of our obedience in the Covenant of Grace is not fear of threatening and wrath in case of disobedience, as was the case in the Covenant of Works. Neither is it a purchase of heaven to ourselves by our own holiness, which was also a motive of the Covenant of Works. But it is love and gratitude, not only to God as Creator but as Redeemer, as the text shows: “I…have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This was made so by God to cause us to set forth, “the praises of him who hath called us.” (1 Pet 2:9), and that we may glorify Him that has bought us. Where duties have these qualifications, they are consistent with grace and subservient to it; but when those qualifications are left out, Christ is wronged and men are legalistic, and in so far fall from and overturn grace.
The Covenant of Works and The Law of God are Not The Same Thing.
Another key distinction that Durham makes is that the law may have been enjoined to a covenantal administration, but the promises and threatenings of that prior covenant are what we are freed from in Christ. The law must possess two qualities to be the law: 1) It directs and 2) It commands, enforcing obedience by authority. A covenant must have further implications than the law because it implies promises made based on conditions and threatenings added if the conditions are not met. So, the law is not a covenant by itself and the covenant is not the law of itself. The conditions and threatenings are what have been made void to believers in Christ. Thus, we are freed from the law as a covenant, so that our lives don’t depend on the promises connected to the law by the covenant, nor are our lives endangered by the threatenings connected to it. This is the first distinction between the law and covenant of works.
Durham distinguishes between the Ten Commandments and the entirety of the law of Moses which contained promises, sacrifices, etc. In the first sense, the Ten Commandments are a law with some of the matter, but not the form of the covenant of works. So, Moses is said to describe such righteousness as the covenant of works requires, yet he does not call it the righteousness they were to rely on, but he uses it to focus the people of God on a Mediator, by revealing sin through the law (Rom 10:5). In the second sense, it is a covenant of grace, the same in substance made with Abraham and by faith with believers today (Gal 3), but differing in its administration.
A critical truth about Israel and their own handling of the law under the covenant of grace is that when the people of Israel received the law wrongly, corrupting and abusing it contrary to the Lord’s intentions for it, it turned into a covenant of works to them. Therefore the Lord rejects their sacrifices as not commanded (Isaiah 1:13, 66:2-3; Jer 7:22), because they depended upon them instead of the grace He offered them.
Durham makes the case to distinguish between the Moral, Ceremonial, and Judicial Law. The first concerns manners, and the right ordering of Godly behavior; and because these things are of perpetual equity and righteousness, the obligation of this Law, as to that, is perpetual; and therefore in the expounding it, these two terms, moral, and of perpetual authority, are all one, and to be taken that way. 2. The Judicial Law is for regulating outward Society, and for Government, and generally (except what was peculiar to the people of Israel) agree with the Moral Law. The Judicial Law as given to them is not perpetual, their policy (covenant administration) being at an end. 3. The Ceremonial Law is in Ceremonies, Types, and Shadows, pointing at a Savior to come; this is also abrogated, the substance being come; but there is this difference: that the Judicial Law is but mortua, dead; and may, where thought fit, with the preceding caution, be used under the New Testament; but the Ceremonial Law is mortifera, deadly, and cannot be revived without falling from grace (Gal. 5:2,4).
Durham further distinguishes between that which is naturally moral (such as to love God and our neighbor), which have an innate righteousness and holiness in them, which cannot be separated from them, and things that are positively moral, whose obligation comes from a special, positive super-added sanction. Such things that are positively moral are not righteous innately, or from their own nature. Take the fourth commandment, which is naturally moral in that God should be worshiped; nature itself teaches it. But that He is to be worshiped on a particular day, comes about by virtue of God’s positive command. The first is perpetual and can’t be altered, but the second can be changed by God at His will (as Christ did change the day by his example). But until He does change it, the authority of it still remains on all men, and it is equally sin to sin against any God’s laws, even where without the positive sanction, there would be no natural obligation in some of them.
Durham also speaks to the division of the Ten Commandments into tables, or tablets (Deut 4:13). The first table contains our immediate worship service and obedience to God Himself in the first four commandments. The second table contains our mediate (as contrasted with immediate) obedience to God in all the duties we owe to others in the last six. There are some important observations we can make about this distinction between the two tables: 1. All of the commandments of the second table are of the same authority as the first: “God spake all these words.” (Ex 20:1) and in fact, it was our Lord Jesus (Acts 7:38) [truly it is the “Law of Christ.“] 2. The sins against the first table are greater than those against the second. This is why Jesus calls the first table laws, “The first and greatest commandment.” (Matt 22:38) 3. Therefore, in moral duties, the duties of the second table cede and give place to the duties of the first when they cannot both be held equally, such as comparing love to God with love to our father or neighbor. (Luke 14:26; Matt 10:37). When obedience to God and other authorities cannot coincide, we are “to obey God, rather than men.” (Acts 5:29). And we are to love the Lord, and hate father and mother (Luke 14:26). 4. Take note that ceremonials or positives of the first table sometimes cede and give place to morals in the second, as for relieving or preserving our neighbor’s life which is danger. We might travel on the Sabbath to save a life, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,” and, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” etc. (Matt 9:13, 12:7; Mark 2:27) (cf. Why Did Christ Only Mention the Second Table?)