The Use of the Law in Worship

This Sunday we read the Ten Commandments as part of our confession of the Heidelberg Catechism. This begins our examination of the Ten Commandments and the role they play in the Christian life. As we are also studying the Ten Commandments in the Sunday School class, we should remind ourselves what role the law in general plays in our lives, and particularly, what role the law plays in Christian worship.

Paul told us that we are not under law but under grace. But we need to understand what he means. He does not at all mean that God’s moral truth no longer applies to us, for he spends a great deal of time in his epistles teaching that moral truth. Rather, he means that God’s people are no longer under the Covenant of Moses, which taught them their guilt through the requirement of commandments. We are under the Covenant of Grace, which holds out God’s gracious forgiveness and all of the blessings of His fellowship freely to His people through faith in Christ. God’s moral truth cannot possibly stop being relevant, however, because it is an expression of God’s own nature and of His intention for the creation of mankind as an imagebearer. We therefore strive for personal and practical holiness out of thankfulness for His gifts and out of a desire to lay hold of all of the blessings of our salvation, and never to earn anything. This is what it means to be “not under law, but under grace.”

In this light, we can see what use the moral law of God has to us in worship. By reflecting on the law of God, we first recognize our own failures and our inability to earn God’s blessings through lawkeeping. This drives us to the cross of Christ. Secondly, we study the law in our worship in order to see what it is that Christ has saved us to. He is restoring us to God’s original intention for mankind, and conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ. The law shows us what that looks like, for He kept the law perfectly.

Contemplating the law of God and its precepts within the worship service, therefore, praises God’s own righteous nature, thanks Him for the good and glorious way He made man, expresses our sorrow for our failure to be what God has called us to be, and commits ourselves to laying hold of all of the benefits of Christ’s salvation. A Christian worship service therefore should always involve contemplation of God’s moral truth. Properly done, this is not something separate from the gospel; God’s moral law is an aspect of the gospel, as it shows us the intention of God’s salvation.

The Heidelberg Catechism’s use of God’s law demonstrates this understanding. The Ten Commandments, in the Catechism, are not used to demonstrate our sinfulness. The general and simple expression of God’s law by Jesus Christ is sufficient for that. Our failure to love God and our neighbor amply shows our need for Christ. But the Catechism exposits the Ten Commandments in the section on thankfulness. The Ten Commandments structure the way we respond to and understand the purpose of the redemption we have freely in Christ, showing first the nature of the right relationship with God that we are saved into, and secondly the nature of restored human relationships that will flow from that restored divine fellowship.