We’ve all seen one of those lists where several items are delineated under a single heading set-up line. For instance: “You know you’re old when…” – followed by a humorous list of indicators of old age. It would seem helpful when considering each one of the commands of the Decalogue to preface them with God’s own preface: And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
By starting here, we are reminded that the Decalogue really is part of the Covenant of Grace. Every single moral norm God lists for His covenant people is prefaced by the Gospel, i.e., I am the Lord your God.” Israel had never done anything worthy of God’s affection, a fact He reminds them of one more than one occasion (Num. 16:9; Deut. 7:6; Ezek. 16). God’s grace is demonstrated in His sovereign and powerful deliverance of His people from slavery.
As we said above, let us keep in mind God’s preface to this statement. It is based upon His covenant of grace with His people. He has sovereignly chosen His people, and has therefore revealed what a life of covenant-keeping should look like. I will be greatly misunderstood if I am construed to imply the ridiculous error of Pelagius and Finney that just because God commands something, it is automatically implied that man has the innate ability to obey. A large purpose of the Decalogue is to show us how great our sins and miseries are, being in the corrupt state of Original Sin, as we are. A man who looks at God’s law and confidently assumes, “I can do that,” is either crazy or grossly mistaken about his own depravity.
Heidelberg Catechism Question 114 asks, “But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?” To which it replies, “No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” I can just picture someone jumping to the opposite assumption and saying, “Well, if we can’t obey God’s law, and He knows it, then why does He even command it in the first place?” The Heidelberg has this one covered too. The very next question is: “Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?” The succinct answer to this is, “First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come.”
Paul tells us that the Law is a pedagogue to bring us to Christ. It is not that God purposefully places us under a moral code that He knows we can’t live up to simply so that He can damn us to Hell. He has graciously revealed something of His own moral perfections in the Decalogue. Surely we should appreciate it for that reason alone. But just as important is the service it does by making us despair of ever pleasing God in our own strength. Christ’s righteousness is the only righteousness good enough for God. In grace, God imputes this very righteousness to His elect. Hence, they are reckoned by God to be perfectly righteous, as if they had, in their own persons, perfectly obeyed every jot and tittle of God’s law. This holds true without respect to their actual deeds. I know that this sounds scary to some of you, but it is actually true. I cannot and do not obey God’s law perfectly, but that’s ok because the obedience by which I am accepted of God is the perfect passive and active obedience of Christ.
Having said all that, we can proceed to the first Command: - “You shall have no other gods before me.” What does this first Word of the Decalogue enjoin? Again, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, “That I, as sincerely as I desire the salvation of my own soul, avoid and flee from all idolatry, sorcery, soothsaying, superstition, invocation of saints, or any other creatures; and learn rightly to know the only true God; trust in him alone, with humility and patience submit to him; expect all good things from him only; love, fear, and glorify him with my whole heart; so that I renounce and forsake all creatures, rather than commit even the least thing contrary to his will.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism notes that the words, “before Me,” in this command are to remind us that we are always before God. Everything we say and do is exposed and open before Him. Though many people bristle at divine sovereignty, it is based upon God’s being Creator. How could God be in possession of the infinite wisdom and power required to create the universe ex nihilo, and yet while sustaining it and preserving its existence moment by moment, fail to rule it sovereignly? As the Sovereign Creator, Sustainer, Ruler and Judge of the universe, He has the right to choose a people for Himself, and by making Himself their God, enjoin worship.
We often rather simplistically picture idolatry as a man falling prostrate before an image of stone. While that most certainly is idolatry. Idolatry can be more accurately defined as having any other object of trust besides God. Ephesians 5:5 literally equate covetousness with idolatry. And speaking of Ephesians 5, God often uses adultery as a metaphor for idolatry. The sacred covenant between God and His people is violated just as foully by idolatry as the sacred bond of matrimony is violated by adultery.
One more thing should perhaps be said now, which while it applies to this particular command, it has an equal bearing on all Ten Words, namely, all of God’s commands as revealed in the Decalogue have a two-fold application. To God’s covenant people, the Decalogue drives them graciously to Christ. We are constantly reminded of our native enmity toward God, and our heinous violations of His revealed will. But rather than casting us into despair, we are driven to trust in Christ because He fulfilled all righteousness for His people and bore the punishment which their sin richly deserved. To the unregenerate, God’s law is an unflinching standard of inexorable justice by which they will one day give an account to God. Being weighed and found wanting, they will deservedly be damned to eternal punishment for defying God and trampling on the righteousness of Christ.
A trustworthy Savior is provided by God for the elect. We need never look elsewhere. That is what the prologue to the Decalogue tells us. God is our God. However, to the reprobate, His law still demands worship, and there will literally be hell to pay for their lives of incessant idolatry. Man’s mind, as Calvin reminds us, is a perpetual forge of idols. All idolatry is ultimately self-worship, whether realized or not. The worship of the Biblical God is the only worship imposed upon man from an outside source. In all other religions, a man chooses whom to worship. The choice may be largely dictated by his culture, but at the end of the day, it is a human choice to worship this or that deity. Only the God of the Bible enters man’s existence and imposes Himself upon us. He reveals Himself to fallen, vile, degenerate sinners, enters into covenant with them, based solely on His own pleasure, and by making Himself their God, demands to be worshipped.