The Ten Commandments

by Thomas Watson


Man's Inability to Keep the Moral Law

Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?

No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life, to perfectly keep the commandments of God—but does daily break them, in thought, word, and deed. "In many things we offend all." James 3:2.

Man in his primitive state of innocence, was endowed with ability to keep the whole moral law. He had rectitude of mind, sanctity of will, and perfection of power. He had the copy of God's law written on his heart; no sooner did God command but he obeyed. As the key is suited to all the wards in the lock, and can open them—so Adam had a power suited to all God's commands, and could obey them. Adam's obedience ran parallel with the moral law—as a well made dial goes exactly with the sun. Man in innocence was like a well tuned organ, he was sweetly in tune to the will of God; he was adorned with holiness as the elect angels—but not confirmed in holiness as the angels. He was holy—but mutable; he fell from his purity, and we with him. Sin cut the lock of original righteousness, where our strength lay; it brought a languor and faintness into our souls; and has so weakened us, that we shall never recover our full strength until we put on immortality. What I am now to demonstrate, is—that we cannot yield perfect obedience to the moral law.

I. The case of an UNREGENERATE man is such—that he cannot perfectly obey all God's commands. He may as well touch the stars, or walk across the ocean—as yield exact obedience to the law. A person unregenerate cannot act spiritually, he cannot pray in the Holy Spirit, he cannot live by faith, he cannot do duty out of love to duty; and if he cannot do duty spiritually, much less perfectly. Now, that a natural man cannot yield perfect obedience to the moral law, is evident.

(1) Because he is spiritually DEAD. "You were dead in your transgressions and sins." Eph 2:1. How can he, being dead, keep the commandments of God perfectly? A dead man is not fit for action. A sinner has the symptoms of death upon him. He has no sense; he has no sense of the evil of sin, of God's holiness and veracity; therefore he is said to be without feeling. Eph 4:19. He has no strength. Rom 5:6. What strength has a dead man? A natural man has no strength to deny himself, or to resist temptation; he is dead; and can a dead man fulfill the moral law?

(2) A natural man cannot perfectly keep all God's commandments, because he is BORN in sin, and LIVES in sin. Psalm 51:5. "He drinks iniquity like water." Job 15:16. All the imaginations of his thoughts are evil, and only evil. Gen 6:5. The least evil thought is a breach of the royal law; and if there is any defect, there cannot be perfection. As a natural man has no power to keep the moral law, so he has no will. He is not only dead—but worse than dead! A dead man does no hurt—but there is a life of resistance against God that accompanies the death of sin. A natural man not only cannot keep the law through weakness—but he breaks it through willfulness. "We will do whatever goes out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven." Jer 44:17.

II. The REGENERATE man cannot keep the moral law perfectly. "There is certainly no righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins." Eccl 7:20. There is in the best actions of a godly man--that which is damnable--if God should weigh him in the balance of justice. Alas! how are his duties fly-blown! He cannot pray without wandering, nor believe without doubting. "For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it." Rom 7:18. Paul, though a saint of the first magnitude, was better at willing than at performing. Mary asked where they had laid Christ; for she had a mind to have carried him away—but she lacked strength: so the regenerate have a desire to obey God's law perfectly—but they lack strength; their obedience is weak and sickly. The mark they are to shoot at, is perfection of holiness; but though they take a right aim, and do what they can—they come short of the mark. A Christian, while serving God, is like the rower who plies the oar, and rows hard--but is hindered, for a gust of wind carries him back again! So says Paul, "For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do." Romans 7:19. "I am driven back by temptation!"

Now, if there be any failure in a man's obedience, he cannot be a perfect commentary upon God's law. The Virgin Mary's obedience was not perfect; she needed Christ's blood to wash her tears. Aaron was to make atonement for the altar, to show that the most holy offering has defilement in it, and needs atonement to be made for it. Exodus 29:37.

If a man has no power to keep the whole moral law, why does God require it of him? Is this justice?

Though man has lost his power of obeying, God has not lost his right of commanding. If a master entrusts a servant with money, and the servant spends it dissolutely, may not the master justly demand it? God gave us power to keep the moral law, which by tampering with sin, we lost; but may not God still call for perfect obedience, or, in case of default, justly punish us?

Why does God permit such an inability in man, to keep the law? He does it:

(1) To humble us. Man is a self-exalting creature; and if he has but anything of worth, he is ready to be puffed up; but when he comes to see his deficiencies and failings, and how far short he comes of the holiness and perfection which God's law requires, it pulls down the plumes of his pride, and lays them in the dust; he weeps over his inability; he blushes over his leprous spots; he says with Job, "I abhor myself in dust and ashes."

(2) God allows this inability be upon us, that we may have recourse to Christ—to obtain pardon for our defects, and to sprinkle our best duties with his blood. When a man sees that he owes perfect obedience to the law—but has nothing to pay, it makes him flee to Christ to be his friend, and answer for him all the demands of the law, and set him free in the court of justice.

Use one. Here is matter of HUMILIATION for our fall in Adam. In the state of innocence we were perfectly holy; our minds were crowned with knowledge, and our wills, as a queen, swayed the scepter of liberty! But now we may say, "The crown has fallen from our head." Lam 5:16. We have lost that power which was inherent in us. When we look back to our primitive glory, when we shone as earthly angels, we may take up Job's words, "Oh that I were as in months past!" chap 29:2. O that it were with us as at first, when there was no stain upon our virgin nature, when there was a perfect harmony between God's law and man's will! But, alas! how is the scene altered, our strength is gone from us; we tread awry at every step: we come below every precept; our dwarfishness will not reach the sublimity of God's law; we fail in our obedience; and while we fail, we forfeit. This should put us in deep mourning, and open a fountain of sorrow in all our souls.


(1) It confutes the Arminians, who cry up the power of the will. They hold they have a will to save themselves. But by nature, we not only lack strength—but we lack will to that which is good. Rom 5:6. The will is not only full of weakness—but obstinacy. "But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me." Psalm 81:11. The will hangs forth a flag of defiance against God. Such as speak of the sovereign power of the will, forget "It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." Phil 2:13. If the power is in the will of man, then what need is there for God to work in us to will? If the air can illumine itself, what need is there for the sun to shine? Such as talk of the power of nature, and their ability to save themselves, disparage Christ's merits. I may say (as Gal 5:4), "Christ has become of no effect to them." Those who advance the power of their will in matters of salvation, without the sovereign grace of Christ, do absolutely put themselves under the covenant of works. I would ask, "Can they perfectly keep the moral law?" "Sin is manifested in any blemish at all." If there is but the least defect in their obedience, they are lost. For one sinful thought, the law of God curses them, and the justice of God condemns them. Confounded be their pride, who cry up the power of nature, as if, by their own inherent abilities, they could rear up a building, the top whereof should reach to heaven.

(2) It confutes that sort of people who brag of perfection; and who, according to that principle, can keep all God's commandments perfectly. I would ask such—whether at any time a vain thought has come into their minds? If there has, then they are not perfect. The Virgin Mary was not perfect. Though her womb was pure (being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit)—yet her soul was not perfect. Christ tacitly supposes a failing in her. Luke 2:49. And are they more perfect than the blessed Virgin was? Such as hold perfection, need not confess sin. David confessed sin, and Paul confessed sin. Psalm 32:5; Rom 7:25. But they are got beyond David and Paul; they are perfect, they never transgress; and where there is no transgression, what need for confession? Again, if they are perfect, they need not ask pardon. They can pay God's justice what they owe; therefore, why pray, "Forgive us our debts"? Oh, that the devil should rock men so fast asleep, as to make them dream of perfection! Do they plead, "Let us therefore as many as be perfect be thus minded"? Phil 3:15. Perfection there, is meant of sincerity. God is best able to interpret his own word. He calls sincerity perfection. "A perfect and an upright man." Job 1:8. But who is exactly perfect? A man full of diseases may as well say he is healthful—as a man full of sins say he is perfect.

Use three. For ENCOURAGEMENT to regenerate people. Though you fail in your obedience, and cannot keep the moral law exactly—yet be not discouraged.

What comfort may be given to a regenerate person under the failures and imperfections of his obedience?

That a believer is not under the covenant of works—but under the covenant of grace. The covenant of works requires perfect, personal, perpetual obedience; but in the covenant of grace, God will make some abatements; he will accept less than he required in the covenant of works.

(1) In the covenant of works God required perfection of degrees; in the covenant of grace he accepts perfection of parts. There he required perfect working, here he accepts sincere believing. In the covenant of works, God required us to live without sin; in the covenant of grace he accepts of our combat with sin.

(2) Though a Christian cannot, in his own person, perform all God's commandments; yet Christ, as his Surety, and in his stead, has fulfilled the law for him: and God accepts of Christ's obedience, which is perfect, to satisfy for that obedience which is imperfect. Christ being made a curse for believers, all the curses of the law have their sting pulled out.

(3) Though a Christian cannot keep the commands of God to his satisfaction—yet he may to God's approbation.

How is that?

(1) He gives his full assent and consent to the law of God. "The law is holy and just:" there was assent in the judgment. Rom 7:12. "I consent unto the law;" there was consent in the will. Rom 7:16.

(2) A Christian mourns that he cannot keep the commandments fully. When he fails, he weeps; he is not angry with the law because it is so strict, but he is angry with himself because he is so deficient.

(3) He takes a sweet delight in the law. "I delight in the law of God after the inward man." Rom 7:22. Greek: "I take pleasure in it." "O! how love I your law." Psalm 119:97. Though a Christian cannot keep God's law—yet he loves his law; though he cannot serve God perfectly—yet he serves him willingly.

(4) It is his sincere desire to walk in all God's commands. "O that my ways were directed to keep your statutes." Psalm 119:5. Though his strength fails—yet his pulse beats.

(5) He really endeavors to obey God's law perfectly; and wherein he comes short he runs to Christ's blood to supply his defects. This sincere desire, and real endeavor, God esteems as perfect obedience. "If there are a willing mind, it is accepted." 2 Cor 8:12. "Let me hear your voice, for sweet is your voice." Canticles 2:14. Though the prayers of the righteous are mixed with sin—yet God sees they desire to pray better. He picks out the weeds from the flowers; he sees the faith and bears with the failing. The saints' obedience, though short of legal perfection—yet having sincerity in it, and Christ's merits mixed with it, finds gracious acceptance. When the Lord sees endeavors after perfect obedience, he takes it well at our hands; as a father who receives a letter from his child, though there are blots in it, and false spellings, takes all in good part. Oh! what blotting are there in our holy things; but God is pleased to take all in good part. He says, "It is my child, and he would do better if he could; I will accept it."


Degrees of Sin

Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

"He who delivered me unto you, has the greater sin." John 19:11. The Stoic philosophers held that all sins were equal; but this Scripture clearly holds forth that there is a gradual difference in sin; some are greater than others; some are "mighty sins," and crying sins." Amos 5:12; Gen 18:21. Every sin has a voice to speak—but some sins cry. As some diseases are worse than others, and some poisons more venomous, so some sins are more heinous. "You have done worse than your fathers, your sins have exceeded theirs." Jer 16:12; Ezek 16:47. Some sins have a blacker aspect than others; to clip the king's coin is treason; but to strike his person is a higher degree of treason. A vain thought is a sin—but a blasphemous word is a greater sin. That some sins are greater than others appears,

(1) Because there was difference in the offerings under the law; the sin offering was greater than the trespass offering.

(2) Because some sins are not capable of pardon as others are, therefore they must needs be more heinous, as the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Matt 12:31.

(3) Because some sins have a greater degree of punishment than others. "You shall receive the greater damnation." Matt 23:14. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" God would not punish one more than another, if his sin was not greater. It is true, "all sins are equally heinous in respect of the object" —the infinite God, against whom sin is committed—but, in another sense, all sins are not alike heinous; some sins have more bloody circumstances in them, which are like the dye to the wool, to give it a deeper color.

[1] Such sins are more heinous as are committed without any occasion offered; as when a man swears or is angry, and has no provocation. The less the occasion of sin, the greater is the sin itself.

[2] Such sins are more heinous that are committed PRESUMPTUOUSLY. Under the law there was no sacrifice for presumptuous sins. Num 15:30.

What is the sin of presumption, which heightens and aggravates sin, and makes it more heinous?

To sin presumptuously, is to sin against convictions and illuminations, or an enlightened conscience. "There are those who rebel against the light." Job 24:13. Conscience, like the cherubim, stands with a flaming sword in its hand to deter the sinner—and yet he will sin. Did not Pilate sin against conviction, and with a high hand, in condemning Christ? He knew that for envy the Jews had delivered him. Matt 27:18. He confessed he "found no fault in him." Luke 23:14. His own wife sent to him saying, "Have nothing to do with that just man." Matt 27:19. Yet for all this, he gave the sentence of death against Christ. He sinned presumptuously, against an enlightened conscience. To sin ignorantly does something to extenuate and pare off the guilt. "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin," that is, their sin had been less. John 15:22. But to sin against illuminations and convictions enhances men's sins. These sins make deep wounds in the soul; other sins fetch blood; they are a stab at the heart!

How many ways may a man sin against illuminations and convictions?

(1) When he lives in the total neglect of duty. He is not ignorant that it is a duty to read the Word—yet he lets the Bible lie by as rusty armor, seldom made us of. He is convinced that it is a duty to pray in his family—yet he can go days and months, and God never hears of him; he calls God Father—but never asks his blessing. Neglect of family-prayer, as it were, uncovers the roof of men's houses, and makes way for a curse to be rained down upon their table!

(2) When a man lives in the same sins he condemns in others. "You who judge, do the same things." Rom 2:1. As Augustine says of Seneca, "He wrote against superstition—yet he worshiped those images which he reproved." One man condemns another for rash censuring—yet lives in the same sin himself; a master reproves his apprentice for swearing—yet he himself swears. The snuffers of the tabernacle were of pure gold: those who reprove and snuff the vices of others, had need themselves be free from those sins. The snuffers must be of gold.

(3) When a man sins after vows. "Your vows are upon me, O God." Psalm 56:12. A vow is a religious promise made to God, to dedicate ourselves to him. A vow is not only a purpose—but a promise. Every votary makes himself a debtor; he binds himself to God in a solemn manner. Now, to sin after a vow, to vow himself to God, and give his soul to the devil, must needs be against the highest convictions.

(4) When a man sins after counsels, admonitions, warnings, he cannot plead ignorance. The trumpet of the gospel has been blown in his ears, and sounded a retreat to call him off from his sins, he has been told of his injustice, living in malice, keeping bad company—yet he would venture upon sin. This is to sin against conviction; it aggravates the sin, and is like a weight put into the scale, to make his sin weigh the heavier. If a sea-mark is set up to give warning that there are shelves and rocks in that place—yet if the mariner will sail there, and split his ship, it is presumption; and if he is cast away, who will pity him?

(5) When a man sins against express combinations and threatening. God has thundered out threatenings against such sins. "Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies, the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins." Psalm 68:21. Though God sets the point of his sword to the breast of a sinner—he will still commit sin! The pleasure of sin delights him—more than the threatenings affright him. Like the leviathan, "he laughs at the shaking of a spear." Job 41:29. Nay, he derides God's threatenings. "Let him hasten his work, that we may see it! We have heard much what God intends to do, and of judgment approaching, we would gladly see it" Isa 5:19. For men to see the flaming sword of God's threatening brandished—yet to strengthen themselves in sin—is in an aggravated manner to sin against illumination and conviction.

(6) When a man sins under affliction. God not only thunders by threatening—but lets his thunderbolt fall when he inflicts. He inflicts judgments on a person, so that he may read his sins in his punishment—and yet he sins! His sin was immorality, by which he wasted his strength, as well as his estate. He has had a fit of apoplexy; and yet while feeling the smart of sin, he retains the love of sin. This is to sin against conviction. "In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord." 2 Chron 28:22. It makes the sin greater ,to sin against an enlightened conscience. It is full of obstinacy. Men give no reason, make no defense for their sins, and yet are resolved to hold iniquity fast. "An action can be measured and judged by the will involved"—the more of the will in a sin, the greater the sin. "We will walk after our own devices." Jer 18:12. Though there is death and hell at every step, we will march on under Satan's colors!

What made the sin of apostate angels so great, was that it was willful; they had no ignorance in their mind, no passion to stir them up; there was no tempter to deceive them—but they sinned obstinately and from choice. To sin against convictions and illuminations, is joined with rejection and contempt of God. It is bad for a sinner to forget God—but it is worse to revile him. "Why does the wicked man revile God?" Psalm 10:13. An enlightened sinner knows that by his sin he alienates and angers God; but he cares not whether God is pleased or not, he will have his sin; therefore such a one is said to reproach God. "Those who brazenly violate the Lord's will, blaspheme the Lord." Numb 15:30.

Every sin displeases God—but sins against an enlightened conscience reproach the Lord. To condemn the authority of a prince, is a reproach done to him. It is accompanied with impudence. Fear and shame are banished, the veil of modesty is laid aside. "The unjust knows no shame." Zeph 3:5. Judas knew Christ was the Messiah; he was convinced of it by an oracle from heaven, and by the miracles he wrought, and yet he impudently went on in his treason, even when Christ said, "He who dips his hand with me in the dish, he shall betray me," and he knew Christ meant him. When he was going about his treason, and Christ pronounced a woe to him. Yet, for all that, he proceeded in his treason. Luke 22:22. Thus to sin presumptuously, against an enlightened conscience, dyes the sin of a crimson color, and makes it greater than other sins.

[3] Such sins are more heinous than others, which are sins of CONTINUANCE. The continuing of sin, is the enhancing of sin. He who plots treason, makes himself a greater offender. Some men's heads are the devil's mint-house, they are a mint of mischief. "Inventors of evil things." Rom 1:30. Some invent new oaths, others new snares. Such were those who invented a decree against Daniel, and got the king to sign it. Dan 6:9.

[4] Those sins are greater which proceed from a spirit of MALIGNITY. To malign holiness is diabolical. It is a sin to lack grace, it is worse to hate it! In nature there are antipathies, as between the vine and laurel. Some have an antipathy against God because of his purity. "Rid us of the Holy One of Israel!" Isa 30:11. Sinners, if it lay in their power, would not only unthrone God—but annihilate him! If they had it in their power—God would no longer be God. Thus sin is boiled up to a greater height.

[5] Those sins are of greater magnitude, which are mixed with INGRATITUDE. Of all things—God cannot endure to have his kindness slighted. His mercy is seen in reprieving men so long, in wooing them by his Spirit and ministers to be reconciled, in crowning them with so many temporal blessings. And to abuse all this love—when God has been filling up the measure of his mercy, for men to fill up the measure of their sins—is high ingratitude, and makes their sins of a deeper crimson! Some are worse for Gods's mercy. "The vulture," says Aelian, "draws sickness from perfumes." So the sinner contracts evil from the sweet perfumes of God's mercy. Mr. Parry, who being condemned to die, Queen Elizabeth sent him her pardon; and after he was pardoned, he conspired and plotted the queen's death! Just so, some deal with God--He bestows mercy, and they plot treason against Him. "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." Isaiah 1:2. In the fable, the frozen snake, after being warmed, stung him who gave it warmth! Certainly sins against mercy are more heinous.

[6] Those sins are more heinous than others which are committed with DELIGHT. A child of God may sin through a surprisal, or against his will. "I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do." Rom 7:19. He is like one that is carried down the stream involuntarily. But to sin with delight, heightens and greatens the sin. It is a sign the heart is in the sin. "They set their heart on their iniquity," as a man follows his gain with delight. Hos 4:8. "Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying." Rev 22:15. To tell a lie is a sin; but to love to tell a lie, is a greater sin.

[7] Those sins are more heinous than others which are committed under a pretense of religion. To cheat and defraud is a sin—but to do it with a Bible in one's hand, is a double sin. To be unchaste is a sin; but to put on a mask of religion to play the whore makes the sin greater. "I have peace offerings with me; this day have I paid my vows; come let us take our fill of love." Proverbs 7:14, 15. She speaks as if she had been at church, and had been saying her prayers: who would ever have suspected her of dishonesty? But, behold her hypocrisy; she makes her devotion a preface to adultery. "They shamelessly cheat widows out of their property, and then, to cover up the kind of people they really are, they make long prayers in public. Because of this, their punishment will be the greater." Luke 20:47. The sin was not in making long prayers; for Christ was a whole night in prayer; but to make long prayers that they might do unrighteous actions, made their sin more horrid!

[8] Sins of APOSTASY are more heinous than others. Demas forsook the truth and afterwards became a priest in an idol temple, says Dorotheus. 2 Tim 4:10. To fall is a sin; but to fall away is a greater sin. Apostates cast a disgrace upon religion. "The apostate," says Tertullian, "seems to put God and Satan in the balance; and having weighed both their services, prefers the devil's, and proclaims him to be the best master!" In which respect the apostate is said to put Christ to "open shame." Heb 6:6. This dyes a sin in grain, and makes it greater. It is a sin not to profess Christ—but it is a greater to deny him. Not to wear Christ's colors is a sin—but to run from his colors is a greater sin. A pagan sins less than a baptized renegade.

[9] To PERSECUTE religion makes sin greater. Acts 7:52. To have no religion is a sin—but to endeavor to destroy true religion is a greater sin. Antiochus Epiphanes took more tedious journeys and ran more hazards—to vex and oppose the Jews, than all his predecessors had done to obtain victories. Herod "added this above all, that he shut up John in prison." Luke 3:20. He sinned before by incest; but by imprisoning the prophet he added to his sin and made it greater. Persecution fills up the measure of sin. "Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' sins!" Matt 23:32. If you pour a glass of water into a cistern it adds something to it—but if you pour in a bucketful or two it fills up the measure of the cistern; so persecution fills up the measure of sin, and makes it greater.

[10] To sin MALICIOUSLY makes sin greater. Aquinas, and other of the schoolmen, place the sin against the Holy Spirit, in malice. The sinner does all he can to vex God, and despite the Spirit of grace. Heb 10:29. Thus Julia threw up his dagger in the air, as if he would have been revenged upon God. This swells sin to its full size, it cannot be greater. When a man is once come to this, blasphemously to despite the Spirit, there is but one step lower he can fall—and that is to hell!

[11] It aggravates sin, and makes it greater, when a man not only sins himself—but endeavors to make OTHERS sin.

(1) Such as teach errors to the people—these men's sins are greater than others. If the breakers of God's law sin—what great sin have they, who teach men to break them? Matt 5:19.

(2) Such as destroy others by their bad example. The swearing father teaches his son to swear, and damns him by his example. Such men's sins are greater than others, and they shall have a hotter place in hell.

Use. You see all sins are not equal; some are more grievous than others, and bring greater wrath; therefore especially take heed of these sins. "Keep back your servant from presumptuous sins." Psalm 19:13. The least sin is bad enough; you need not aggravate your sins, and make them more heinous! He who has a little wound, will not make it deeper. Oh, beware of those circumstances which increase your sin and make it more heinous! The higher a man is in sinning—the lower he shall lie in torment!