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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




This chapter undertakes to give a brief exposition of the second table of the law of God, viewed as a means of grace for the believer. This table contains six commands, and therein are set forth our duties to our fellowmen in various relations. The exposition here must of necessity be very brief, yet it is hoped that it will serve, to some extent, to exhibit the remarkable system of Christian ethics which the Standards inculcate.

The sum of these six commands is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do unto others as we wish others to do unto us. This, in a twofold form of statement, is our Lord's summary of the contents of the second table of the law, and as thus stated it is sometimes called the Golden Rule. He who rightly regards this rule will surely keep all the six commands which make up the second table of the law, and he will thereby discharge his duty towards his fellowmen in a proper way. The several commands are now to be taken up in order, and a very brief exposition of each will be made, following quite closely in the order of the Catechisms in the explanations made.

I. The Fifth Commandment.
This command forms what may be called a connecting link between the two tables. It brings us into the family circle, and enjoins the duties which children owe to their parents, and by implication the duties of parents to their children. Thus, after duties to God are laid down, the reciprocal duties of parents and children are set forth, before our duties to our fellowmen are exhibited. This command is as follows: "Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."

The Larger Catechism explains, and the Shorter implies, that the terms "father and mother" mean not only natural parents, but also all superiors in age and gifts, and especially such as by the ordinance of God are over us in the place of authority, whether in the family, in the church, or in the commonwealth. This gives a very broad scope to this command. It opens up the way for the exposition of the duties which devolve upon the men in the sphere of the family, the state, and the church. And, further, it is to be kept in mind that the duties which men owe to their superiors imply certain correlative duties which they owe to them. Hence, emerge the relations of superiors, inferiors and equals, with their respective duties, as expounded in the Standards.

1. The Duties Required by this Command.
In general, it requires men to preserve the honor, and perform the duties, belonging to every one in their several places and relations as superiors, inferiors and equals. The Larger Catechism explains these manifold duties at great length, while the Shorter Catechism merely gives an outline of their general scope. Inferiors owe certain duties to superiors, such as due reverence for them in their heart, word and conduct, prayer and thanksgiving for them, imitation of their graces, ready obedience to their lawful commands, due submission to their corrections, fidelity in the defence of their persons and authority, bearing with their infirmities, and seeking to be an honor to them and their government. This is true of parents, of civil rulers, and of the proper officers of the church from those under their care and charge.

This command also requires certain duties from superiors to inferiors. The power which superiors have is from God, and it grows out of the relation which they sustain to those under them. It is their duty to love, bless, and pray for their inferiors; also to instruct and admonish them, and also to commend and reward them when they deserve it. They are also to reprove and chastise them when they do ill, and at the same time to protect and provide for them all things needful for both soul and body. They are also, by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary conduct, to procure glory to God, and honor to themselves. In this way only can they rightly preserve that authority which God has put upon them. This is, indeed, a fine code of ethics for all rulers.

As between equals, it is their duty to regard the dignity and worth of each other, in giving honor to go before one another, and to rejoice as much in each other's gifts and advancements as in their own. This is an exquisite code for courtesy in this relation.

2. The Sins Forbidden by this Command.
Speaking generally, this command forbids the neglecting, or doing anything against, the honor and duty which belong to every one in their several places and relations. The Larger Catechism so enlarges this statement that only a mere summary of what it says can be given in this exposition. The sins of inferiors against superiors are all neglect of the duties required, envying their persons or places, having contempt for their counsels and corrections, and such profane and scandalous conduct towards them as proves a shame to them and their authority. The sins of superiors, besides the neglect of their duties, are all inordinate seeking of their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure, commanding unlawful things, or favoring that which is evil, or discouraging that which is good, undue correction, careless exposing of them to temptation, or provoking them to anger. Also, all dishonoring themselves, or lessening of their proper authority, is sinful in superiors. The sins in equals consist chiefly in neglecting the duties already noted, or being guilty of the opposite evil thoughts or deeds.

3. The Reason Annexed to this Command. This reason is simply an express promise of long life and prosperity, so far as it shall serve God's glory and their own good, to such as keep this commandment. This is a very practical promise, which is often seen to be verified among men. It is true of families properly regulated, of nations rightly governed, and of the church directed according to the Scriptures, that they shall be blessed with long life and useful service.

II. The Sixth Commandment.
"Thou shalt not kill" is the form of this brief but pointed command. The one important thing which it emphasizes is the sanctity of life, especially of human life.

1. The Duties Required by this Command.
In a general way, this command requires all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life and the life of others. This is further explained by the Larger Catechism to include resistance of all thoughts, subduing all passions, and resisting all temptations, which tend to the unjust taking away of the life of any. It also requires just defence of life against violence, and patient bearing of the hand of God. To the same end, a quiet mind, and a cheerful spirit should be cherished, and a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation ought to be observed. In like manner, the thoughts should be kind, and the conduct mild and peaceable. The spirit, also, should be forbearing and forgiving, and there should be a readiness to help the distressed, and to protect the innocent.

2. The Sins Forbidden by this Command.
In general, it forbids the taking away of our own life or the life of our neighbor unjustly, or whatsoever tends thereto. Hence, the taking away of the life of ourselves or others, except in cases of judicial procedure, or lawful war, or necessary self-defence, are all forbidden by this command. So, too, the withdrawing or neglecting the lawful means for the preservation of life, sinful anger, desire for revenge, all excessive passion, and distracting care are forbidden. The immoderate use of meat or drink, excessive labor or recreation, provoking words, oppression, striking, or whatever else tends to the destruction of any one's life, is forbidden by the terms of this command.

Under this head there has been much discussion in regard to murder, suicide, capital punishment, self-defence, war, duelling, and other perplexing topics. Though the Standards do not formally discuss any of these questions, yet by the terms in which their contents are stated, their teaching upon these much-debated points can be pretty well understood. The care and compass of the Standards is again evident at this juncture. There are many things of value here which bear upon personal habits of life, upon social customs, and upon the administration of law by the courts, in the teaching of the Standards in this connection.

III. The Seventh Commandment.
This command is as follows: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." It pertains to the relations of the sexes, and enjoins chastity, or personal purity.

1. The Duties Required by this Command.
In a general way, this command requires the preserving of our own and our neighbor's chastity in heart, speech, and behavior. This implies chastity in body and mind, affections, words and conduct, and the preservation of it in others. It requires us to keep a watch over the eyes and senses, temperance and keeping chaste company, wearing modest apparel, marriage under proper conditions, conjugal love and fidelity, diligent labor in our callings, avoiding and resisting all temptations to the violation of this command. Such are some of the main things which this command requires to be observed.

3. The Sins Forbidden by this Command.
It forbids all unchaste thoughts, words and actions. Besides the neglect of the duties enjoined, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts are forbidden. Also, all unclean thoughts, corrupt communications, wanton looks, and immodest apparel are condemned. The prohibition of lawful marriages, tolerating or resorting to stews, making vows to celibacy, poligamy or polyandry, unjust divorce or desertion, indulging in idleness, drunkenness, unchaste company, lascivious songs, pictures, dancings, stage plays, and other temptations to unchastity, are all condemned by the scope of this command, as it is expounded in the Standards.

Here, also, there are several questions of vast practical moment at the present day which come up for discussion at this point, although the Standards do not enlarge upon them. The whole painful subject of what is known as the social evil, and of the best way to repress or destroy it; the great subject of marriage, and especially of divorce; and the question of polygamy, especially as it is advocated by the Mormons, are matters pertinent here upon which much might be said. The teaching of the Standards upon all of these subjects is clear and strong, and it is scriptural withal. This teaching deserves to be carefully heeded at the present day.

IV. The Eighth Commandment.
This command is another very brief one, as follows: "Thou shalt not steal." This command raises the great question of the origin and nature of property rights. The fact that there are such rights is assumed by the Standards, and the condemnation of stealing rests upon this basis. Nothing, therefore, need now be said about the philosophy of these rights.

1. The Duties Required by this Command
It requires the lawful procuring and furthering of the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others. This implies that there must be truth, faithfulness and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man, so that every man shall receive his due. It demands the restitution to rightful owners of goods unlawfully detained, and it requires giving or lending freely, according to our ability and the necessities of others. There should also be moderation of our minds and wills in regard to worldly goods, together with industry and economy in our lawful callings, and concerning our worldly goods or estate; and there should be frugality in all our tastes and habits of life. Further, we should avoid all unnecessary law suits and suretyships, and we should endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve and further the wealth and outward estate of others as well as our own. Here is the stable basis for all sound business transactions.

2. The Sins forbidden by this Command.
It forbids whatever does or may unjustly hinder our own or our neighbor's wealth and outward estate. This condemns all such sins as theft, robbery, manstealing, receiving stolen goods, dishonest dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice in contracts or in matters of trust, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious law suits, engrossing commodities to enhance prices, unlawful callings, inordinate prizing of worldly goods, distracting cares in getting and using worldly possessions, envying at the prosperity of others, idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming or gambling, and all other ways by which we defraud ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate to which God has given us. Such, in part, is the list of sins which are condemned by the broad exposition of this command, as it is set forth in the Standards.

Much might be said here in regard to this command in its bearing upon the ownership of property, especially of property in lands. The relations between labor and capital, and the right principles upon which business of all kinds should be conducted, might also be considered at length in this connection. Since this discussion follows the Standards closely, it must be content to set forth the general principles which they inculcate, rather than make a detailed application of these principles to a multiplicity of cases.

V. The Ninth Commandment.
This command runs as follows: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." It will be seen at a glance that it relates to the right use of speech, or of truthfulness in word and act, between man and man.

1. The Duties Enjoined by this Command.
This command, in general, requires us to maintain and promote truth between man and man, and to preserve our own and our neighbor's good name, especially in witness-bearing. This teaches that we must always take our stand for the truth, and from the heart freely and fully speak the truth, and only the truth, in matters of justice and judgment, and in all other matters as well. We are to have a charitable regard for our neighbors, loving and rejoicing in their good name, and sorrowing for their infirmities, and at the same time being ready to defend their innocency. We are to be more ready to receive a good report than an evil one, and we are to discourage tale-bearers, flatterers and slanderers. We are also to have a love and a care for our own good name, and, if necessary, be ready to defend it. This command also requires that all lawful promises be kept, and those things which are true, honest, lovely and of good report are to be practiced.

2. The Sins Forbidden by this Command.
In a general way, it forbids whatever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbor's good name. The Larger Catechism greatly expands this statement. Of the long list of sins which it enumerates, only a few can be mentioned here, as follows: False testimony or evidence, false judgment, pleading an evil cause, overbearing the truth, calling good evil and evil good, rewarding the wicked as the righteous, forgery, concealing the truth in any way, failure to reprove falsehood, speaking the truth to a wrong end, using ambiguous words, lying, slandering, backbiting, talebearing, reviling, construing in a false way any words or actions, boasting, hiding of sins, raising of false rumors, refusing to hear a just defence, impairing the credit of any, breaking lawful promises, and not hindering what may procure an ill-name to ourselves or others. From this partial list of the sins for^ bidden by this command it is evident that the Standards lay great stress upon its important teaching.

VI. The Tenth Commandment.
This command is somewhat longer than those just expounded, and it is as follows: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's." It is to be observed that this last command passes from the outward to the inward, from act to thought, just as it may also be noticed that the commands, from the sixth onward, pass from the more to the less important. Hence, the order is, life, chastity, property, truthfulness, and then from these outward acts to the inner spirit of which the tenth command speaks.

1. The Duties Enjoined by this Command.
It enjoins full contentment with our own condition, with a right and charitable spirit towards our neighbor and all that is his. This implies that we should be so contented with our own condition, and have such a charitable frame of mind towards our neighbor, that all our inward motions, thoughts, and affections concerning him shall tend unto the furthering of all good pertaining to his welfare. Such is the happy, contented, charitable, and unselfish frame of mind and disposition of heart to whose precious possession this command exhorts us.

2. The Sins Forbidden by this Command.
It forbids all discontent with our estate, and all envying and grieving at the good of our neighbor. It condemns all inordinate motions and affections towards anything that belongs to our neighbor. It is to be noted that this command receives quite brief treatment in the Standards, and it is pretty clear that some of its ground was covered in previous expositions, especially in those of the eighth and ninth commands. In general, the virtue of contentment is enjoined, and the vice of covetousness is condemned, in the terms of this command, and each one is left to make the particular applications for himself.

This completes the exposition of the decalogue as a summary of the moral law, which is to be the ethical code for the conduct of the Christian man; and, by the blessing of the Spirit, it may become a means of grace to him who believes in Christ. By this means the prayer of our Lord for his disciples, "Sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth," will be answered. It goes almost without saying, that a good knowledge of, and a careful regard for, the ethical contents of the Standards at this point will surely build up the believer, alike in the strong and noble virtues, and in the gentle and unselfish graces. It would be well if men in this age, when the moral law of God is so often disregarded, should give very careful attention to the deep and strong exposition of the moral law which the Standards set forth. Under it, in the past, the strongest men and the noblest heroes that the world has ever seen have been developed. It cannot be regarded as a good sign to observe in some places marked decadence from the high moral standard here inculcated. Every relationship of life is explained, and exhortation to duty, and warning against sin, are faithfully given. Nowhere, it may be safely said, is there to be found such a guide-book of high moral teaching as is contained in the exposition of the ten commandments which the Standards unfold. The explanations of this chapter, and of the one preceding it, have done but scanty justice to the contents of the Standards upon this exceedingly practical and important subject.

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