The Way Calvin Read The Ten Commandments May Not Be The Way You Are Used To Reading The Ten Commandments (But It Should Be)

For my entire Christian life, without exception, whenever the minister has read the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) in the worship service—which I heard only when I began worshiping in the Reformed churches—he always begin with the words “I am the Lord your God…”. That, however, is not where the Ten Commandments begin.
The Ten Commandments actually begin in Exodus 20:3, not in verse 2. As a consequence of neglecting this truth, most Christians (especially in Reformed congregations) hear and read the Decalogue as including Exodus 20:2 (and Deut 5:6) but there is another way of reading the Decalogue. You may not be familiar with it. I did not encounter it for a number of years but our unfamiliarity with an old truth does not make that old truth wrong or alien to the Reformed tradition (e.g., Lutheran). The old way is to distinguish between the prologue to the Decalogue and the Ten Commandments themselves. The distinction is intrinsic to the text of the Decalogue itself. Consider Exodus 20:2–3:

“I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.

Verse 2 is a declaration of two gospel truths:

1) Yahweh is their God and

2) he has delivered them graciously and sovereignly from bondage.

Yahweh kept the promise he made to Abraham “to be God to you and to your children after you” (Gen 17:7). In Exodus 6:7 he repeated the essence of that promise: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” In Exodus 20:2 he announces that he is who he said he is and did what he promised to do. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob makes and keeps gracious promises and he has kept covenant of  grace with his church. He has delivered his church from bondage.

Verse 3 is not a declaration of good news. It is a commandment. In traditional Protestant terms, the law comes at Sinai not in its pedagogical use but in its normative use, i.e., the third use of the law (tertius usus legis). The effect is to say, “In light of all that I have graciously, freely done for you, here is what I expect as a consequence.” We were not saved because we met a condition. We were saved by grace alone, through faith alone (and even that faith is a gift; Eph 2:8–10). The obligations we gratefully take up under the third use of the law are consequent obligations. We seek to love God with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourselves because God first loved us.

Remember also, the Decalogue is not the ceremonial (religious) law nor is it the judicial law. It is the moral law. The religious and judicial laws could and would be abrogated in time, after their fulfillment at Golgatha. The moral law, however, is grounded in the immutable nature of God. Christ fulfilled the moral law for us, in our place, but he did not abrogate it as the norm of the Christian life. Our Lord Jesus re-stated the moral law in Matthew 22:37–40. The Apostle Paul re-stated the moral law in Romans 13 and in Ephesians chapters 4–6. This distinction between the judicial, religious, and moral law is known as the threefold division of the law. See the resources below on this.

The moral law expressed in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is the abiding moral law, the natural law, that was first revealed in creation and that is written on the consciences of all humans (see Romans 2:14–15). This is why the Apostle Paul appeals so freely to “nature” in Romans 1 and 2. He knows, as we should know, that all image bearers know in their conscience that God is, that he alone is to be worshiped, and that we owe certain duties to our neighbor.

As I indicated above. This distinction between the gospel of Exodus 20:2 and the law that begins in verse 3 is not new. It is as old as the Reformation. Calvin treated Exodus 20:2 and parallel passages, e.g., Lev 19:36 this way:

I am the Lord your God. In these first four passages he treats of the same points which we have observed in the preface to the Law; for he reasons partly from God’s authority, that the law should be reverently obeyed, because the Creator of heaven and earth justly claims supreme dominion; and, partly, he sets before them the blessing of redemption, that they may willingly submit themselves to His law, from whom they have obtained their safety. For, whenever God calls Himself Jehovah, it should suggest His majesty, before which all ought to be humbled; whilst redemption should of itself produce voluntary submission (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, trans. William Bingham (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1.343).

Calvin followed Luther’s fundamental distinction between law and gospel as two categories or two kinds of divine speech. See the resources below for more on Calvin’s relationship to Luther and for more on the Reformed appropriation of Luther’s distinction between law and gospel. TLDR: Anyone who tells you that Calvin did not follow Luther on this understands neither Luther nor Calvin.

This was not a view peculiar to Calvin. The Westminster Divines picked it up and expressed it explicitly in the Larger Catechism:

Q. 101. 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 Q. 100, the Divines distinguished between the “preface” of the Decalogue, “the substance of the commandments,” and the “reasons annexed to some of them.”

If Calvin taught this distinction and if the Westminster Divines confessed it, why has it become so unfamiliar? This likely occurred for a few reasons:

  1. Most of those who read Calvin read only the Institutes and then selected passages here and there.
  2. Many assume that whatever is being done and taught today is what has always been done and taught. That is a bad assumption but it is widely held. E.g., how many Presbyterian and Reformed folk realize that their pianos, organs, and praise bands were utterly rejected by the Reformed churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? How many realize that our mostly psalm-free worship services would be a shock to our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century forebears?
  3. We have lost track not only of Calvin outside of the Institutes but we have lost track of our confessional documents, e.g., the Westminster Larger Catechism. Bob Godfrey wrote in the early 90s about the loss of the WLC and little has changed since.
  4. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it continues to be taught and believed in some circles that the distinction between the law and gospel is distinct to the Lutheran tradition and the doctrine of divine sovereignty is distinct to the Reformed tradition.

Dear readers, there is no reason for you to submit to these unhappy trends. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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3 comments

  1. I have always heard it as” and God spoke all these words saying” followed by the commandments and then followed by the summary Christ gave. It’s what I grew up with.

  2. Wow, incredible! Thank you for this brother. The Law/Gospel distinction has quite literally changed my life. I am so thankful to the Lord. May I ask why Calvin called the LORD “Jehovah?” I’ve noticed Spurgeon also does this, but then when I listen to modern day preachers it seems they always called Him Yahweh.. I’m a bit confused.

    • Ethan,

      The word “Jehovah” is an artificial word. The so-called tetragrammaton, i.e., the consonants for the Lord’s covenant name in Hebrew are YHWH. We supply the vowels to make it Yahweh. In Medieval Latin, scholars took the vowels from Adonai, another name for God in the Hebrew Bible, meaning Lord, and combined them with the tetragrammaton to for Iehova. In English it became Jehovah. The AV/KJV used it 4 times. The Westminster Larger Catechism used it once (Q. 101). It became traditional to use Jehovah, though I think the first English Bible to use it regularly was the American Standard Version (c. 1901). I suppose that Spurgeon used it because it was gaining in popularity in the late 19th century.

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