Continuing our general inspection of the Decalogue, we may, at this point, briefly note certain introductory facts which should be carefully borne in mind in the proposed study. First, though given to the Hebrews as a body, and for the purpose of uniting them more closely in their political and social lives, the commandments are, each and all, personal in form – addressed directly to the individual conscience and, evidently, intended to develop, in each and all, the sense of individual responsibility.
Second, while these commandments are, in form, negative, pointing out to each person addressed what he must not do, they are, also, positive in their scope, enjoining, in each instance, those personal duties which stand over against the sins prohibited.
Third, while the negative and positive prescripts of the Law relate, primarily, to outward action, they also include, by implication, the inward purpose and spirit and demand, from every subject, not merely an external morality, but also an inherent righteousness – an appropriate state and disposition of the soul, in view of these requirements.
Fourth, the motives brought to bear in order to prevent indulgence in sin and to encourage fidelity to duty are chiefly drawn, in the first instance, from the present rather than the future life – that the degree of development in the persons first addressed rendered them susceptible to this type of appeal and, further, that, to the Hebrews as a corporate nation, none but motives drawn from the present life could apply.
Fifth, the end in view and the proper tendency of the whole Law was, as Calvin has well said, a perfection in righteousness – the forming of the entire life of the individual, and of the nation, also, after the example of the divine purity. In other words, its primary purpose was not to convict and condemn, but to educate, to direct, to sanctify.
Sixth, while the Law was thus adjusted to the moral condition of the individual Hebrew and to the needs of the Hebrews as a nation, its precepts are adapted to the necessity of mankind universally, and its right to control is as wide as humanity, under all dispensations alike and through all time. The theory that the Jehovah who issued these commands was merely the God of the Hebrews, as distinct from other nationalities – that, in this transaction, He was acting provincially rather than as the God of all mankind – is sufficiently confuted by the obvious applicability and authoritativeness of the Decalogue as a code of laws designed for the whole world. The race can never outgrow this code or revolt successfully against its holy supervision. As Dean Stanley has said, in terms which are true of all Christian nations as of the English people, its precepts are embedded in the heart of the Christian religion. Side by side with the prayer of our Lord, they appear, inscribed on our sanctuaries, read from our altars, and taught to our children as the foundation of all morality. As Luther well declared in the preface to his Larger Catechism, whosoever has thoroughly examined and studied the Ten Commandments understands the whole Scripture and is able, on trying occasions and emergencies, to excel in wisdom, counsel, and consolation.
From: Theology of the Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical on the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Presbyterian Churches by Edward D. Morris (Columbus: The Champlin Press, 1900), pp. 522-523.
Edward Dafydd Morris (1825-1915) was Professor of Church History (1867-1874) and Professor of Systematic Theology (1874-1897) at Lane Theological Seminary.