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The Preamble to the Ten Commandments

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When we think of the Ten Commandments, we often forget that before the list of ten begins, we get an introduction. Before God gave Israel his commands, he said this.

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. ~Exodus 20:2

In this introduction, we are taught something very important. Our catechism, Question 76, explains:

The introduction to the Ten Commandments teaches us that because God is the Lord and our gracious Redeemer, his commandments are for our good and he does not will for us to depend on ourselves in keeping them but to trust his grace and power.

Lord and Redeemer

First, the introduction tells us who it is that is giving us these commands. Our God is the Lord, giving him the authority to tell us what to do. He is our master; we are his servants. It is right for us to do what he says.

But lest we think that there is any question about God’s attitude toward us, the people of Israel were to remember that God was the one who brought them out of Egypt where they had been mercilessly enslaved. God is not only our master; he is also our “gracious Redeemer.” Far from wanting to suppress us with his commands, God is interested in freeing us from the commands of others. 

In fact, it is only tradition (and English translation) that refers to the Ten Commandments as commandments. They are never called that in the Bible. Instead, they are called the “ten words of the covenant” (see Exo 34:28). God gave Israel the Ten Commandments as he inaugurated a covenant with them, having already delivered them out of the slavery of Egypt.

For Our Good

What is the significance of this? It is that even in the initial giving of the Ten Commandments, there is no hint of an idea that Israel had to keep these commandments in order to be saved. They had already been saved from Egypt. God had already rescued them. While it may be true that many people thought of these commands as something they had to do in order to ensure that God would be on their side, nothing could be further from the truth. God was already on their side, having unilaterally rescued them from Pharaoh.

In the same way, many Christians today think that if God gives commands this means his love is conditioned upon our keeping of them. But God does not give us his commands so that we can merit his love. He gives us his commands because he has already displayed his love. Unilaterally. At the cross, where our redemption was secured. His commands are part of his covenant of love with us, so that we are not left to ourselves to figure out how we ought to live our lives. His commands are for our good.

Grace and Power

The catechism also says that God “does not will for us (or want us) to depend on ourselves in keeping them, but to trust his grace and power.” We can trust God’s grace when we remember that he has already brought us salvation by his own will and power. And we can trust his power when we remember that this is a God who is for us in every way. Having redeemed us, he will not leave us powerless in our daily lives. His grace continues on, providing us with his own redeeming power to live lives that are truly pleasing to him.

Of course God knows, even better than we do ourselves, how powerless we are to meet his holy standard. But the power we need to see real change take place in our lives is the assurance that God’s love for us is secure. That he has already brought us out of our slavery to sin. And that he has brought us into an eternal covenant relationship with himself, where he has promised to never leave us or forsake us.

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