Meditating on the 9th Commandment with Martin Luther

by Jason G. Duesing April 23, 2015 Scripture: Exodus 20:16

In 1535, the man who cut Martin Luther’s hair told the reformer of his struggles with prayer. Luther, ever the shepherd, wrote a little booklet to help him and others called A Simple Way to Pray. Near the end, Luther recommends that believers pray through the Ten Commandments as a means to warm one’s heart to God and he gives the following specific instructions:

I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as, first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.

With Dr. Luther’s prescription in mind, let us use his helpful exercise for the examination of the ninth commandment, “Do not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16), not only to understand it better, but also to warm our hearts to God. For “the precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad” (Ps 19:8).

Instruction

The ninth commandment requires that God’s people not tell lies about one another. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains in his Studies on the Sermon on the Mount, commands like this are there to “place a bridle upon man’s proneness, as the result of sin and the fall, to lying" (p.232). For a horse that is prone to go its own way, a bridle helps to steer and guide the animal to useful service. The law, external to us, acts like a bridle to constrain us and remind us that without the instruction and intervention of God, we want to wander, and we will lie (Gal. 3:24). Further, it reminds us of the purity and holiness of a God “who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2) and who calls us to “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).

Again, Lloyd-Jones helps here. He says, “as Christians, we should always speak as in the presence of God . . . He sees and hears everything—every exaggeration, every suggested lie. He hears it all and it hurts and offends. Why? Because He is the ‘Spirit of truth,’ and there is no lie anywhere near Him" (237-238).

Thanksgiving

So, when we read the ninth commandment we know we have failed, and worse, we know we will again fail. However, in Christ we find transforming aid that goes beyond external reminders and the bits and bridles of the law. Thankfully, Jesus Christ “is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). As Calvin said, Christ did not add to the law, but “freed and cleansed it" (Institutes, II.VIII.7.). By the atoning work of Christ on our behalf, God does not overlook our telling lies about others, but instead accepts the sacrifice of the eternal truth-telling Christ on our behalf (1 Pet. 3:18).

Confession

In Christ, then, we have the indwelling “Spirit of truth” (Jn. 16:13), who enables us to walk in the Spirit and by His strength obey the law. We can now “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and “put away lying” (Eph. 4:25). And in those moments, when we fail and then confess our sins, we have access to a God who is “faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Prayer

With these thoughts in mind, let us pray and follow the practice of Martin Luther. With warm hearts, we can express our thankfulness to a merciful God who commands total truthfulness, but then also supplies enabling grace to liars who have been “justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).