The Larger Catechism
101 Q. What is the preface to the ten commandments?
A. The preface to the ten commandments is contained in these words, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments.
In this preface, we learn three basic truths about God. First of all, it reveals something of God’s sovereign nature. “Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works:…” The phrase “I am the LORD your God…” reveals the name of God as YHWH, his covenant name (Ex. 6:3). God makes Himself known to His people. The names of God always revealed something of His character and YHWH means He is who He is: “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” (Ex. 3:14) YHWH is later (in Is. 44:6) revealed as “the King of Israel” (“Thus saith the LORD [YHWH] the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD [YHWH] of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.”). As His name reveals, He is sufficient, needing nothing and depending on no one: “having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works” (cf. Acts 17:24, 28).
His name reveals His unique nature and manifests His character. We serve, worship, and obey a God whom we know. This God who revealed Himself as YHWH is by virtue of His name sovereign. Vos put it this way:
No creature may question the righteousness of any act of God: to do so is the height of impiety and irreverence. The sovereignty of God also implies that God is ultimate: there is no principle or law above or beyond God to which God himself is responsible. God is responsible only to himself; his own nature is his only law. There is nothing above or beyond him. God’s sovereignty is manifested in a special way in his work of redemption. Redemption from sin is wholly God’s work, and its benefits are bestowed wholly according to God’s sovereign good pleasure. He saves exactly whom he purposes to save, and does so by his absolute, almighty power.
We can only know and understand God because of His revelation. In giving us the commandments, He first reveals Himself to us. By saying “I am YHWH…” much is implied in the name (as enumerated in the catechism). Surely we should remember this as we study the Ten Commandments. They are God’s commandments and God has revealed Himself to us — we must know and understand whom we obey; we obey His commandments and not just abstract moral principles or laws.
The second thing we learn is that God is our covenant God: “I am the LORD your God…” The LC says, “that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people…” A believer serves his God. A husband loves his wife and not just any wife. The essence of the covenant is that God is our God and that we are His people. We find this in all the expressions of the covenant. It is found in the Abrahamic (Gen. 17:7), the Mosaic (Ex. 6:6, 7; 19:4, 5; Lev. 11:45; Deut. 4:20; 29:13), the Davidic (2K. 11:17; 2Chron. 23:16), and the New Covenant (Jer. 24:7; 31:33; 32:37f.). The God who revealed Himself as the great “I AM” is also our God.
Is this God (as expressed in Exodus 20) our God? Can we say that the God who revealed Himself to Israel and gave the Ten Commandments is the Christian’s God as well? Has He entered into a covenant with us? If He is our God, then His Word ought to binds us. To say this God is our God but these commandments do not pertain to us would demand some sort of an explanation. At least for now, we need to affirm that this same God is in a covenant with us, His New Covenant people. The phrase “and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people” means that as God related to Israel through the covenant so He is “a God in covenant” with us as well.
The phrase therefore teaches two things. One is that God enters into a relationship with His people by means of the covenant. As He did so with Israel, so He did so with us. Secondly, as already implied, we, as New Covenant people, are in a covenant relationship with the same God. The God who gave the Ten Commandments is also our covenant God. Romans 3:29 says, “Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also.” It is the same God in both the Old and New Testaments.
God is not polygamous. His covenant is with His people, one people in Christ; we are all one (Jews and Gentiles) in Christ. It is the one people who through history included both Jews and Gentiles; God does not have a separate covenant with the Jews and a different covenant with Gentiles — He only has one wife prepared for Himself (cf. Rev. 21-22).
The preface reveals a wonderful third truth about God. God is a redeeming God. His grace precedes our obedience: “who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom…” As the God in covenant delivered Israel from their bondage in Egypt so He delivered us from our spiritual bondage to sin and under the devil’s power.
The divines used a very powerful and pregnant passage to support this theological statement. They cite Luke 1:74-75: “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” Using OT language and imagery, Zechariah prophesied that God had “redeemed his people” (v. 68). This redemption is the salvation envisioned and promised in the OT: “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies…” (vv. 70-71). This is OT language used to explain the role of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. The Messiah’s coming brings about deliverance from our enemies: “to show mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” That deliverance was in keeping with his “holy covenant” he made with Abraham.
The statement clearly teaches that the coming of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant and that His coming is also described in terms of deliverance. That deliverance, we learn in the NT, is ultimately more powerful than any deliverance from foreign political powers. That deliverance is “from our spiritual thralldom/bondage.” That is how the NT explains Zechariah’s prophecy in Colossians 1:13-14, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Zechariah foresaw their/our deliverance and we clearly understand that deliverance in terms of deliverance from spiritual bondage (and the full redemption of all things to follow).
We have been delivered from a greater bondage and therefore our obligations are greater and not lesser. Vos put it like this:
Every child of God has been redeemed from a “house of bondage” vastly more powerful, cruel, and tyrannical than the physical bondage of ancient Egypt. This statement in the preface to the Ten Commandments causes us to realizes (a) that as Christians, we have been delivered from bitter slavery; and (b) that this deliverance was not our own achievement, but was accomplished by the sovereign, almighty power of God. (Vos)
As Israel received the Ten Commandments with their redemption behind them so we stand before His law with our redemption accomplished. We are in a parallel position. We are the redeemed people before a gracious God who calls us to obey His commandments. As the NIV translated it, “Therefore… in view of God’s mercy…” (Rom. 12:1). We obey in view of His mercies! “For the grace of God has appeared, bring salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness…” (Titus 2:11-12).
- Always remember that redemption precedes obedience.
It is because we are redeemed by Christ, we seek to obey His Word. We do not obey to save ourselves but obey in view of His mercies. We believe and are justified and therefore we are saved; in that estate of salvation, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
- If we forget this order, we fall into legalism.
Once we confuse this order (redemption precedes obedience), we will fall into “legalism.” That is, we will tend to believe that our obedience somehow merits God’s favor, pardon, acceptance, etc. We may never explicitly state that our works saves us but our slavish spirit will act as if that were the case.
- This preface must always accompany our study of the Ten Commandments.
Without it, a Muslim could practically agree with everything. Without it, the “Law” stands on its own with a God commanding obedience. There are no grace and mercy in view and we will stand condemned each time. We must look at the Ten Commandments through the lens of redemptive grace or we will fall prey to works righteousness.
Our God and His Commandments
The preface to the Ten Commandments leads us to this point: “and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments.” As Israel had God as their God, that He was their God by means of the covenant, and that He redeemed them, so we are in the same position or condition. We stand as a covenant people redeemed by grace called upon to obey all his commandments.
To put it more plainly, can we truly accept this God as our covenant God and refuse to accept his commandments? What about all the Ten Commandments? Do we get to pick and choose which of the Ten Commandments should bind us? Has God’s moral law for Israel changed?
Hebrews 1:1ff. teach that God continually revealed Himself to his people. But in the final stage of redemptive history, “he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” If Israel had to obey in terms of the Old Covenant (OC) revelation, then how much for us in terms of the New Covenant: “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:2-3) In the OC, Israel was to obey because God was their God: “Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 18:30) “Therefore shall ye observe all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:37) If that holds true in terms of what they received, how much more for us?
The “lesser to the greater argument” applies here (or an a fortiori argument, an argument from yet a stronger reason). We have a greater and stronger reason to obey His commandments. Somehow we have drawn the opposite conclusion. We reason that since we are in the NC, we are less bound. But God has not become less holy and what He has done for us is far greater than what He did for Israel (in redemptive historical terms). As Peter said (1Pet. 1:15, 16), “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”” The verse he cited comes from Lev. 19:2. The same rule and principle used in the OT applies to us, and even more so. Peter goes on to add this inducement (1Pet. 1:17-19):
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
Because he cited Leviticus 19:2 to challenge NC believers, we learn something important here. In fact, the casual way with which Peter appeals to the Old Testament should challenge us all. Since he mentioned how the prophets were serving us (1 Pet. 1:12) in the beginning of the chapter, therefore he cites Lev. 19:2 because God’s Word pertains to all of His people.
Peter assumes that the OT writings are authoritative and normative for his Christian readers, regardless of their previous ethnic origin. He makes no distinction between the Jewish and the Gentile Christian in his application, nor does the span of time between Leviticus and his letter mitigate the relevance of God’s ancient revelation of himself. By quoting from Leviticus, Peter establishes the principle that the holiness to which the Christian is called in Christ is consistent with God’s character as revealed in the ancient covenant with Israel. However, Peter does not enjoin on his Christian readers the specifics of the Levitical religion of ancient Israel. In terms of moral transformation, the goal of both the old and the new covenants is the same—to create a people who morally conform to God’s character.
God’s moral character is spelled out in His law. Those laws in the OC and especially the Ten Commandments were not “incidental.” They revealed something of His holy character. For example, the “speed limit” is arbitrary. Its only moral force comes from the Bible’s teaching concerning obedience to civil magistrates. However, there is nothing intrinsically binding in the speed limit since it is arbitrary. God’s law, on the other hand, reveals His character and we are called to be conformed to His character. So the preface reveals “a declaration of God’s authority to enforce, and of his mercy to oblige us to the obedience of, those laws, which he delivers.”
 I well understand the dispensational arguments regarding this but we cannot enter into that debate at this time.
 An interesting debate within the Reformed camp has recently garnered some attention. Did Adam ever exist outside of the covenant and was the covenant an extra layer placed (graciously) on Adam? See Jeffrey C. Waddington, “Sic et Non. Views in Review: Westminster Seminary California Distinctives? Part III. II. The Reformed Two Kingdoms Doctrine,” The Confessional Presbyterian 10, (2014): 189-204 (esp. 193-194).
 Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 17 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 113.
 Ezekiel Hopkins, The Works of Ezekiel Hopkins, 3 vols. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 1:271.