The Ten Commandments and the Apostolic Creed in the Worship Service
Last month we began a series on the order of worship as practiced in the Free Reformed Churches and also in some other Reformed denominations. So far, we covered the votum and salutation. The official worship begins with the votum based on Psalm 124:8: “Our help is in the Name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” This is followed by the salutation with which the Lord, via the minister, greets His people. These salutations are drawn from the New Testament epistles, “Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:3) and other passages.
Following the votum and salutation, the congregation sings. We will deal with this part of the worship service later and first take up the matter of reading the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed, the former during the morning and the latter during the afternoon or evening service.
The Reading of the Ten Commandments
This seems to be a custom in Reformed churches only, as far as I know. Many people ask us why we do this and when and where did this practice begin? The beginning of it can be traced to the Old Testament. For instance, we read in Exodus 24:7, “And he (Moses) took the book of the covenant and read it in the audience of the people and they said, all that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (cf. also Deut. 31:11, Josh. 8:34, 2 Kings 23:2 and Neh. 8). Apparently, the law was also read in the New Testament church because her worship was patterned after the model of the synagogue. It is true that the word law, at least in its Old Testament context, was broader than the Decalogue, but it certain included the Ten Commandments.
Strassburg and Geneva
As far as church history is concerned, the practice of reading the law in worship services began shortly after the Reformation. Until that time, the Summary of the Law, found in Deuteronomy 6:5 (cf. Mat. 19:37-40; Luke 10:27) was read periodically but not the Decalogue in its entirety. This was done first in Strassburg, Switzerland. When Calvin came there he found the Reformed congregation singing the Law. He was so impressed by this that he introduced the practice also in the Genevan churches. He first had them sing the Decalogue but later it was read to the worshippers prior their confession of sins. Gradually, this practice was taken over by Reformed churches in continental Europe, but not in England, due to the Puritan’s strong opposition to the ritualism of the Anglican establishment.
A Meaningful Custom
Why do we, who trace our roots to the continental Reformed churches, still follow this Genevan custom? Why did Calvin insist that the law be read every Lord’s Day? Because the key doctrine of the Reformed faith is the sovereignty of God. Calvin and the other Reformed theologians felt the need to remind the congregation of the holy law of their sovereign God.
For Calvin, the Decalogue was the only rule for life, the unchanging and unchangeable expression of the will of God for man. So, whenever the congregation meets for worship, her first duty is to humble herself before God on account of her sins and to beg for His mercy. That’s why Calvin first had the law read, followed by confession of sin and the declaration of pardon.
We, in our Free Reformed churches, no longer have special forms for prayers of confession and absolution. These matters are now part of the general prayer and are dealt with in more detail in the sermon in which the kingdom of heaven is opened and closed (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31). We do, however, retain the practice of reading the law because we believe that this still serves the same purpose for which our Reformed fathers instituted it, namely to awaken a sense of sin, both in the saved and unsaved.
But this is by no means the only reason for reading the law. The Ten Commandments are also held up as a rule or standard for the believer’s conduct, as a rule for faith and life. Thus the double function of the Law is 1) to expose sin in our life and 2) to instruct us how to live as forgiven sinners.
The Custom Critiqued and Defended
In recent years, considerable criticism has been raised against this practice. Dispensationalists object that we, as New Testament Christians, have nothing to do with the Mosaic law any more. “We are no longer under the law but under grace,” is the constant refrain.
But another objection comes from within the Reformed community. It is this: Why read the law, which emphasizes sin all the time? Are we not all Christians whose sins have been forgiven? They will allow the summary of the law to be read, but not the whole law. They will argue that the summary sums up the spiritual nature of the law, which is correct.
But by not reading the long form of the law we are in danger of forgetting the details of the law, which spell out exactly what God requires of us. This does not mean that churches which don’t read the Ten Commandments every Sunday are for that reason to be regarded as false. We need to distinguish between churches that never had this practice and those that did at one time but discarded it. In the latter case there is cause for suspicion as to the real motive.
What could possibly be wrong with reading God’s law? Is it not part of His infallible and inerrant Word? Certainly, the unconverted need to hear what God demands from them. Unless, of course, we think that everyone in church is saved already. But even if that were so, it would still be beneficial for God’s people to be reminded of what God requires of them. As our Catechism puts it in Lord’s Day 44:
Q. 115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached (and that would certainly include reading it), since no man in this life can keep them? A. 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 the righteousness in Christ, likewise, that we constantly endeavour 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.
Furthermore, if there was ever a time when we need to hear the law read and preached, it is today. It is no longer heard in our public schools and the church is the only place where the law can be publicly read.
Reciting the Apostles’ Creed
Let us now look at the Apostles’ Creed and ask why it is read or recited in our churches.
Why this creed and not the Belgic Confession of Faith or the Canons of Dort? Not only because the latter are too long to recite, although sometimes small portions of them are read at special occasions, but also because they are limited to the Reformed churches. Together with the Heidelberg Catechism, they are what we call the Three Forms of Unity.
The Apostles’ Creed, however, is one of the ecumenical creeds, shared by Christians all over the world. So, by reading the Apostles’ Creed or the Twelve Articles of our Faith, we express our spiritual kinship with believers of all times and all places. As early as the third century A.D., the catholic or worldwide Church of Christ confessed her faith in these words. Today, we still sense a spiritual bond with this church of all ages.
That we are Reformed does not mean we believe the church of Christ started in the 16th century. The Reformed churches are no new church, but re-formed along the lines of the New Testament church. So, when we confess our faith, it is the faith built on the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:19-20).
Originally, the Apostles` Creed was recited by new converts prior to baptism. In the churches of the Reformation it was read after the sermon and before the Lord’s Supper or it was sung or confessed in prayer, as we still do in the Form for the Lord’s Supper. Eventually, the desire was felt that especially the youth of the church should be instructed in the Twelve Articles of “our holy undoubted Christian Faith” and this eventually led to Catechism preaching.
The Danger of Mere Outward Form
We have seen why all faithful Reformed churches adhere to this twin practice of reading the Law and the Apostles’ Creed in the worship services. Sadly, for many worshippers it is little more than a custom and form.
Would that the reaction to hearing the law read among us was more like that of the Jews at the time of Nehemiah. When they heard Ezra read the law of God, the people began to weep so that Nehemiah had to tell them to stop their weeping and mourning (Neh. 8:9) – quite an enviable job for a minister – one that few pastors since have been called upon to perform. These people saw that they had failed to keep the commandments of the Lord; and so they wept.
That still happens when God’s law is applied powerfully to sinners’ hearts. Not necessarily with outward, visible tears but deep inside there will be mourning. Have we Reformed worshippers ever been there, in Bochim, the place of mourning (Judg. 2:6)? Then the law has done its proper work and we are ready for the Gospel which speaks of Christ who was “made of a woman, made under the law to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).
But after we are set free from the curse of the law, we are not finished with the law. Only now are we ready to obey the law. Then, as Nehemiah said to the mourners in Jerusalem, the joy of the Lord is your strength (Neh.8:10). Knowing that God loves you and has forgiven you, you go forth in the service of Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light (Matt. 11:30). And you will confess with all the saints,
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth
And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord...
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
I believe a holy catholic church, the communion of saints;
The forgiveness of sins...