Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 7 (Jan. 22, 2014), pp. 30-31.
According to the Heidelberg Catechism, the law always addresses the believer in the context of the gospel. Lord’s Days 2 and 3, describing our sin and misery, come after Lord’s Day 1, the confession that we belong to Jesus and are redeemed by his grace. Even more importantly, the third part of the Catechism, describing the Ten Commandments in detail as guide for the Christian life, comes after the great explanation of our salvation in Christ in the second part.
In previous articles, we have examined several New Testament passages that provide the biblical foundation for the Catechism’s use of the Ten Commandments (Rom. 15:4, 2 Tim. 3:14-17, Rom. 13:8-10, Eph. 6:1-3, and Jam. 1:25). But the foundation for this view of the law is actually much deeper than that. When the apostles apply the law to God’s people in the context of God’s grace as the life of gratitude, they are not doing something new. This was always how God’s covenant people were to receive the commandments. When Paul in Ephesians 6, for example, applies the fifth commandment to the church as part of what it means to live “in in the Lord,” he is able to do that because the fifth commandment was always given to God’s people in the context of God’s grace.
The Prologue: “I am the LORD your God”
Many have observed that this is clearly taught by the prologue of the law:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 5:6).
God addresses Israel as the LORD, their covenant God, the one who has already bound himself to them by his promises. And he addresses them as the one who has already brought them out of the land of Egypt and is now giving them the promised land – all by his grace. The commandments are given in that context, as a description of the life of gratitude.
This must not be missed: Israel received and lived in the promised land by faith in God’s promises. Their obedience – described in the Ten Commandments – would be the fruit of that faith. Of course they would fall short in the life of faith; that is why they were given the sacrifices as signs and seals of forgiveness through the blood of the promised Messiah. When Israel was sent into exile, it wasn’t because they failed to earn or deserve anything by their lack of obedience. It was because of their lack of faith, demonstrated in their idolatry. God never called Israel to earn or merit or deserve any of his blessings. Rather, God called his people to faith in in his promises, and to a life of obedience in gratitude for his grace.
All of this grace is proclaimed in the prologue to the law. God gives the law to those he has already rescued from slavery, and to whom he is has already promised the land that he is giving them.
“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house”
While it is proclaimed clearly in the prologue to the commandments, this gospel-context of the law finds its most beautiful expression one chapter later, in Deuteronomy 6:9.
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:6-9)
Verse 9 in particular proclaims the gospel-context of the law: “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In Deut. 6, Israel is about to enter the promised land, the land that they would receive and live in by faith in God’s promises. Moses is giving them instructions regarding how they are to live when they enter the land: they are to teach the commandments to their children and keep them before the household in all of life: speaking of the commandments while sitting and walking, binding them to hands and foreheads, writing them on their homes.
At first glance we might think that surely, if anything, this is an example of the burden of the law. Nevertheless, I want to say this more pointedly. Deuteronomy 6:9 is one of the most gospel-driven, grace-saturated commands in all of Scripture. How can this be?
This isn’t the first time the doorposts of the house are mentioned in the books of Moses, featuring prominently in Israel’s life.
“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.” (Exodus 12:7)
The context is the last plague in Egypt, the Passover, when God would slay all of the firstborn sons in Egypt. Israel would be spared, but it wouldn’t be because Israel somehow earned or deserved God’s favor. Rather, they were to sacrifice the Passover Lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their house.
“The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)
The command of Deut. 6:9 is gospel-driven and grace-saturated, because the doorposts of the house were blood-stained. Whenever an Israelite went to write the law of God on the doorposts of the house, he was writing it on doorposts that had been stained with blood – the blood of the Passover Lamb, blood that foreshadowed and proclaimed the promised sacrifice of the Messiah.
Law in the Context of Grace
This serves as a beautiful example of how the commandments of God always functioned in the life of Israel. For Israel, obedience to God’s law was a gift of God’s grace, the fruit of faith in God’s promises, motivated by gratitude for God’s redemption. The order is essential. It is the same order that is expressed in the New Testament, the order that is taught and celebrated by the Heidelberg Catechism. First, God rescues from slavery through the blood of the Lamb. Second, he calls his people to embrace the gift of new life, described in the law, motivated by faith in and gratitude for God’s promises.
The use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism faithfully reflects this use of the law in the life of Israel. Nobody wrote the law on doorposts of a house that were not first stained by the blood of the Passover Lamb. For Israel, the law was always given in the context of grace.
As for Israel, so for us: the law is given in the context of redemption, as a description of the new life God is giving to us as a gift of his grace. We are redeemed by the blood of Christ. But God’s grace doesn’t end there. We are also being renewed to be like Christ, given the gift of new life. And in that context, God gives us life according to his law as an expression of gratitude for redemption in Christ.