The Use of the Decalogue in Worship

Determining the frequency with which the Decalogue is to be sung/recited in morning worship.

For the Consistory of Phoenix United Reformed Church
2016 June 28

Scripture does not explicitly require ministers to read the Ten Commandments during worship services. Certain principles have nevertheless informed churches throughout history to include the Decalogue on a frequent, or even weekly basis. This practice remained prevalent among Protestants until the 19th century, when revivalism began displacing traditional liturgical forms and Dispensationalism diminished the Decalogue’s relevance for New Covenant believers. 

Today, Reformed churches largely continue to incorporate Biblical readings distinct from the sermon, for the purpose of stimulating confession and grateful obedience. The Ten Commandments commonly serve that end. Since the 1500’s, however, local Consistories have expressed freedom to vary texts used throughout the service. I will state my view from the outset: Biblical-liturgical principles allow for a variety of ways to honor the intent behind reciting the Decalogue, without binding the church to particular formulas. This conclusion is borne out by Scripture, as well as by the testimony of Reformed church history.

Biblical & Early Church Background

Rather than prescribing a specific order of service, the New Testament indicates certain elements which must be present in Christian worship. Among others, Scripture calls for corporate confession of sin, pastoral declarations of forgiveness, and instruction in godliness (Jas 5:16; Jn 20:23; 1 Tim 6:2-3). Because church officers bear ministerial authority, these elements are generally facilitated with reference to appropriate Biblical passages. In the case of those listed above, this entails passages which state imperatives of the Law and/or indicatives of the Gospel. The order in which such elements are joined, as well as the texts incorporated, is a matter of wisdom rather than rule.

The liturgical mold of the early church was the Jewish synagogue. Documents from that time show some Jewish communities required the Ten Commandments to be read weekly, while others restricted them to occasional use, fearing sectarianism might come from elevating one part of Scripture above the rest of God’s Word. [1] It is evident from Clement’s letter to the Corinthians (c. 96 AD) that Christian services involved a distinct time of confession and pardon, but Clement does not specify whether the Ten Commandments were employed). One of the earliest liturgical guidebooks, the Didache (c. 100 AD), states, 

In church, confess your transgressions, and do not go to prayer with an evil conscience” (IV, 14), and: “When you gather together each Lord’s Day, break bread and give thanks. But first confess your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure [that is, celebrating the Supper in faith, not as a legalistic or unrepentant work]. (XIV,1) [2]

Many of the second-century church Fathers, including Polycarp, Theophilus, and Irenaeus, systematically taught on the abiding importance of the Ten Commandments. [3] Still, there does not appear to have been a uniform practice of including the Decalogue in worship or catechesis for the first 1000 years of church history. According to Robert Bast, the Decalogue first began to feature prominently in Christian teaching in the 12th century, perhaps in response to the apparently degenerate state of the church. [4]

Early Reformed Principles and Practice

In 1503, Johann Ulrich Surgant of Basle (c. 1450–1503) published a pastoral handbook which John Calvin credited as influencing his own liturgical views. In it, Surgant recommended reading the Ten Commandments weekly. [5] While exiled in Strasbourg, Calvin studied under Martin Bucer (1491–1551). Bucer described his weekly service as follows:

When the congregation comes together on Sunday, the minister exhorts the people to confess their sins and to pray for pardon; and on behalf of the whole congregation he makes confession to God, prays for pardon, and pronounces absolution to the believers. Thereupon, the whole congregation sings a few short psalms or hymns. Then the minister says a short prayer, reads to the congregation a passage from the writings of the apostles, and, as briefly as possible, expounds the same. Then the congregation sings again, this time the Ten Commandments, or something else. [6]

Notably, Bucer shows relative indifference to which passage serves the Law-function, as he does likewise with texts used for pardon: “Sometimes [the minister] takes other Words which comfort us in the forgiveness of sins and in the ransom of Christ for our sins, such as St. John 3:16, or 3:35-6, or Acts 10:43, or John 2:1-2.”  Flexibility is apparent in Calvin’s approach as well, though he preferred greater regularity. Deddens observes that, while Calvin served in Strasbourg—where he enjoyed considerably more liturgical freedom than in Geneva—his service began as follows:

  • Invocation (Psa 121:2, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”)
  • Confession of sins
  • Words of pardon and comfort, with Scriptural absolution (i.e., 1 Tim 1:15-17) [8]
  • Ten Commandments

Calvin placed the Decalogue after confession and pardon to emphasize that full-orbed obedience is the covenantal response appropriate for Christians, and not the meritorious ground of our forgiveness. [9] Moreover, Calvin did not simply recite the Commandments; rather, the congregation sang a rhyming version he wrote for that purpose. Each command was followed by the phrase, “Lord, have mercy upon me.” [11] Moreover, he punctuated the first and second “tables” of the Law with a brief prayer. 

Upon returning to Geneva, Calvin was prevented from using his musical version in the service, but continued reciting the Ten Commandments each Lord’s Day morning. We see that his incorporation of the Decalogue was driven by certain principles (to guide our response to forgiveness) yet reflects considerable freedom (sung/spoken; dividing the tables, etc). Moreover, there is no indication he felt their absence would be sub-Christian. Calvin regarded the presence and placement of confession, absolution, and moral guidance prior to the sermon as more important than the texts chosen to incite them.

The Use of the Decalogue in the Netherlands and Canada

Following the Reformation, the use of Ten Commandments underwent several changes in the Netherlands. Petrus Dathenus’ liturgical guidebook (1562) reflects a growing trend to place the Decalogue before confession of sin, rather than after pardon as Calvin had done, arguably shifting its significance primarily to guilt rather than gratitude. [12] The first synod in the Netherlands, held in Dordrecht in 1574, removed confession of sins and absolution as necessary elements in worship, yet retained the sung-version of the Ten Commandments, suggesting a loss of understanding about the intended purpose. [13]

In 1923, the Synod of Utrecht was urged to reintroduce the confession and declaration of forgiveness into the formula of worship, but chose not to. Finally, Synod of Kampen 1975 revisited the issue and adopted much of Calvin’s liturgical formula. “The Synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches at Cloverdale 1983 followed the sister churches in the Netherlands by recommending to the churches this second order of liturgy.” [14]

CRC and URCNA Use of the Ten Commandments

The 1923 and 1930 Acts of the Christian Reformed Church include reading of the Law as part of weekly services. As well, the Christian Reformed Service Book (1981) includes responsive readings of the Law (not exclusively the Decalogue). The use of the Ten Commandments is less defined in the URCNA. The Church Order (6th Ed.) states that confession of sins is to be made each Lord’s Day, but does not specify which texts, if any, are to be used for this purpose. Furthermore, I searched the minutes of the previous eight synods (1996-2012) and found no references to either the Decalogue/Ten Commandments as a fixed element in the order of service.


The value of the Ten Commandments to elicit confession of sins and guide Christian obedience has lead many Reformed churches to incorporate sung or spoken versions into weekly liturgies. There is no indication from Scripture, however, that the Decalogue alone serves that purpose. Which texts are used is a matter of wisdom, not rule. Moreover, notable figures such Bucer and Calvin expressed flexibility in the frequency and position which the Decalogue had in worship. The most important factor, I believe, is to understand and communicate the principles behind inclusion of the Law in the service, lest it become a dead ritual. Its position prior the sermon is arguably more vital than which text is chosen to illustrate guilt and gratitude. Nonetheless, the Ten Commandments cover the full gamut of covenantal godliness in a way that few, if any, other texts do. Regular, if not weekly, recitation of the Ten Commandments solidifies a sense of the full-orbed obedience which God’s righteousness requires, that is imputed through faith in Christ alone, and is being realized by the Spirit who sanctifies us to keep not some, but all of the Law.

If you have additional knowledge or corrections, please notify me:

Copyright © Michael Spotts 2016, All Rights Reserved.


  1.  Mishnah Tamid 5:1. Some Rabbis, including the great Medieval scholar Maimonides, forbade Jews from standing during the reading of the Decalogue lest they seem to value the Ten Commandments above the other 603 laws. See Jonathan Sacks, “The Custom that Refused to Die,”
  2.  This is also an example of the fact that early churches felt freedom to celebrate the Supper weekly, as well as less frequently, as consistories determined.

  3.  This is also an example of the fact that early churches felt freedom to celebrate the Supper weekly, as well as less frequently, as consistories determined. “Preparing man for this life, the Lord Himself did speak in His own person to all alike the words of the Decalogue; and therefore, in like manner, do they remain permanently with us, receiving by means of His advent in the flesh, extension and increase, but not abrogation” Irenaeus. Adversus haereses, Book IV, Chapter 16, Verse 4. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885.

  4.  “Nearly unnoticed in scholarship on the catechism is the fact that while catechesis itself had been on the agenda of the Church from the very beginning, the use of the Decalogue had not. For reasons not yet completely clear, before the late twelfth century the attitude of the Church toward the Commandments was ambiguous… Christians defined themselves as recipients of a New Covenant, sealed by the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus’ death) and guided by a new and better Law (the Sermon on the Mount) […] The general tenor of the solution may be seen in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 200), who claimed the superiority of Christian ethics to the Jewish Law, while affirming that the Decalogue itself had not been cancelled, but rather amplified and extended by Jesus… Catechetical texts from the Patristic era include the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, explanations of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a great deal of moral teaching drawn from various biblical and apocryphal sources, but the Decalogue was generally passed over.” Emphasis mine. Robert James Bast, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of a Patriarchal Ideology in Germany, 1400-1600 (Leiden ; New York: Brill Academic Publishers, 1997.) 32-33.

  5.  K. Deddens, “A missing link in Reformed liturgy.pdf,” 1. Clarion 37, nos. 15–19 (1998).

  6.  Emphasis mine. Deddens, “A missing link,” 1, 2.

  7.  Deddens, “A missing link,” 2.

  8.  The words of absolution which follow the Scriptural words of pardon are as follows: “Let each of you confess that he is really a sinner who has to humble himself before God. He must believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious to him in Jesus Christ. To all who have repentance and who seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce forgiveness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Deddens, “A missing link,” 3. 

  9.  Deddens, “A missing link,” 3.

  10.  The phrase, “Lord have mercy upon me” (kyrie eleison), has been used in worship since the first century, finding its origins in both the Old and New Testaments. “Calvin had a special reason for having the Kyrie-eleison sung by the congregation, namely, the repeated petition for help from the Lord in order that the congregation would practice the service of love in thankfulness.” Deddens, “A missing link,” 13. 

  11.  “In what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? But this you will say is done in every prayer; for as often as we pray for pardon, we confess our sins. I admit it. But if you consider how great is our carelessness, or drowsiness, or sloth, you will grant me that it would be a salutary ordinance if the Christian people were exercised in humiliation by some formal method of confession… indeed, in all well-ordered churches, in observance of an useful custom, the minister, each Lord's day, frames a formula of confession in his own name and that of the people, in which he makes a common confession of iniquity, and supplicates pardon from the Lord. In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all.” Emphasis mine. Calvin, Institutes, III:4:11.

  12.  Bert Polman, “A History of Worship in the Christian Reformed Church,” in The Psalter Hymnal Handbook, ed. Emily Brink and Bert Polman (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1998) 111-12. 

  13.  “The ‘Law,’ for instance, appears as a floating element without any liturgical anchorage either in that which precedes or follows.” From “A History of Liturgy in the Christian Reformed Church” by John Vriend in Proceedings of a Conference on Liturgy and Music in Reformed Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1979), 9-10; In 1580, Van der Heyden formed a new liturgy in which pronouncements of law and grace were missing completely. “Some have said that the Synod of 1574, and especially the Synod of 1581 (both of them chaired by Gaspar van der Heyden) spoiled the beautiful start of Calvin's liturgy.” Deddens, “A missing link,” 11.

  14.  Deddens, “A missing link,” 11.