Luther on How to Break and Keep The 10 Commandments — Help for TableTalkRadio.org Fans
Those of you who follow the boys over at Table Talk Radio ought to be familiar with one of their most interesting segments, the 10 Commandments in the news. For those of you who are initiated with the provocateurs of Lutheran doctrine and hilarity, Table Talk Radio is the first of its kind: a Lutheran game show. Revs. Bryan Wolfmueller and Evan Goeglein teach Lutheran doctrine through relevant, fun, and always interesting games. There is Table Talk Jeopardy, Which Ladder, Bumper Sticker Theology, Facebook Status Theology, the ultra popular and spot on Praise Song Cruncher, the Iron Preacher, and many, many, many more.
One of the staples of the show is a game called 10 Commandments in the news. In it, the Revs. select a news story, the participant must explain which Commandments are implicated in the story. It is one of the more fascinating, yet educational segments that demonstrates how the Commandments are relevant in our lives today, and how they play out all around us. The Table Talk website has a lot of useful articles, but one thing I noticed lacking was an article relating to the 10 commandments. I happened to run across in Volume 43 of Luther’s Works, a Prayer Book compiled by Luther that tells how we break and how we keep the 10 Commandments. I thought this might be a useful tool for Table Talk Radio listeners and anyone generally interested in applying the Commandments in his or her life. The section from Luther’s Book of Prayer is set forth below.
What It Means to Break the Commandments
Breaking the First
Whoever tries to do away with trouble by witchcraft, by the black arts, or by an alliance with the devil.
Whoever uses [magic] writings, signs, herbs, words, spells, and the like.
Whoever uses divining rods, travels by a magic cloak, or steals milk,19 uses incantations to find treasure, resorts to crystal-gazing.
Whoever governs his life and work according to certain days, celestial signs, and the advice of fortune-tellers [Lev. 20:6].
Whoever uses certain incantations as blessings and charms against danger from wolves, sword, fire, or water to protect himself, his cattle, his children, and any kind of property.
Whoever ascribes any bad luck or unpleasantness to the devil or to evil persons and does not, in a spirit of love and praise, accept both evil and good as coming from God alone [Phil. 4:11], responding to God with gratitude and willing submission.
Whoever tempts God and exposes himself to unnecessary danger to body [Luke 4:12] and soul.
Whoever shows arrogance because of his piety, knowledge, or other spiritual gifts.
Whoever honors God and the saints only to gain some temporal advantage, forgetting the needs of his soul.
Whoever does not trust and rely upon God’s mercy at all times and in everything he does.
Whoever doubts the Creed or God’s mercy.
Whoever does not defend others against unbelief and doubt or does not do all in his power to help them believe and trust in God’s mercy.
Here belongs every kind of doubt, despair, and false belief.
Breaking the Second Commandment
Whoever swears needlessly or habitually.
Whoever swears to support a falsehood or breaks his vow.
Whoever vows or swears to do evil.
Whoever uses God’s name to curse.
Whoever tells silly stories about God and whoever carelessly misconstrues the words of Scripture.
Whoever does not call upon God’s name in adversity and does not praise him in joy and sorrow, in fortune and misfortune [II Cor. 6:8].
Whoever uses his piety and wisdom to seek praise, honor, or reputation.
Whoever calls upon God’s name falsely, as do heretics and all arrogant saints.
Whoever does not praise God’s name, no matter what may happen to him.
Whoever does not restrain others from dishonoring God’s name, from using it wrongly or for evil purposes.
Hence self-conceit, boasting, and spiritual pride belong here.
Breaking the Third Commandment
Whoever does not listen to God’s word or try to understand it.
Whoever does not offer prayer to God.
Whoever does not regard all he does as God’s work.
Whoever, in all he does and endures, does not quietly allow God to do with him as he pleases.
Whoever does not help the other person do all this and does not restrain him from doing otherwise.
Breaking the Fourth Commandment
Whoever is ashamed that his parents are poor, have faults, or are not highly regarded.
Whoever does not provide clothing and food for his needy parents.
Especially whoever curses or strikes his parents, slanders them, and is hateful and disobedient toward them.
Whoever does not in all sincerity regard them highly simply because God has so commanded.
Whoever does not hold his parents in honor even though they might do him wrong and even use force against him.
Whoever does not honor those in authority over him, remain loyal and obedient to them, no matter whether they are good or bad.
Whoever does not help others to obey this commandment and resist those who break it.
Here belongs every kind of arrogance and disobedience.
Breaking the Fifth Commandment
Whoever is angry with his neighbor.
Whoever says to him, “Raca” [Matt. 5:22.]—which represents any expression of anger and hatred.
Whoever says to him, you nitwit,20 you fool [Matt. 5:22], that is, uses all sorts of insults, profanity, slander, backbiting, condemnation, scorn against his neighbor.
Whoever makes his neighbor’s sin or shortcomings public rather than protecting him from publicity and trying to see the good in him.
Whoever does not forgive his enemies, does not pray for them, and whoever is unfriendly and does them no kindness.
Breaking this commandment includes all sins of anger and hatred, such as murder, war, robbery, arson, quarreling and feuding, begrudging a neighbor’s good fortune and rejoicing over his misfortune [ICor. 13:6].
Whoever fails to practice merciful deeds even toward his enemies [Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:20].
Whoever sets persons against one another and incites them to strife [Prov. 16:28].
Whoever causes disunity between persons.
Whoever does not reconcile those who are at odds with one another [Matt. 5:9].
Whoever does not prevent or forestall anger and discord wherever he can.
Breaking the Sixth Commandment
Whoever violates virgins, commits adultery, incest, and similar kinds of sexual sins.
Whoever commits sexual perversions (called the unnamed sins) [Rom. 1:26–27; Lev. 18:22–23; 20:10–16].
Whoever uses lewd words, ditties, stories, pictures to incite others to sexual lust or displays such lust himself.
Whoever stirs up sexual desires in himself and contaminates himself by ogling, touching, and sexual fantasies.
Whoever does not avoid provocation to sexual sins—heavy drinking and eating, laziness and idleness, sleeping too much, and associating with persons of the opposite sex.
Whoever incites others to unchastity by excessive personal adornment, suggestive gestures, and other means.
Whoever allows his house, room, time, or assistance to be used for such sexual sins.
Whoever does not do and say what he can to help another person to be chaste.
Breaking the Seventh Commandment
Whoever steals, robs, and practices usury.
Whoever uses short weights and measures [Deut. 25:15], or who passes off poor merchandise as good.
Whoever gets an inheritance or income by fraud.
Whoever withholds earned wages [Deut. 24:15] and whoever refuses to acknowledge his debts.
Whoever refuses to lend money without interest to a needy neighbor.
All who are avaricious and want to get rich quickly.
Whoever in any way keeps what belongs to another or keeps for himself what is only entrusted to him for a time.
Whoever does not try to prevent loss to another person.
Whoever does not forewarn his neighbor against possible loss.
Whoever hinders what is advantageous to his neighbor.
Whoever is vexed by his neighbor’s increase in wealth.
Breaking the Eighth Commandment
Whoever conceals and surpresses the truth in court.
Whoever does harm by untruth and deceit.
Whoever uses flattery to do harm, or spreads gossip, or uses double-talk.
V 43, p 21 Whoever brings his neighbor’s conduct, speech, or wealth into question or disrepute.
Whoever allows others to speak evil about his neighbor, helps them, and does nothing to oppose them.
Whoever does not speak up in defense of his neighbor’s good repute.
Whoever does not take a backbiter to task.
Whoever does not speak well about all his neighbors and does not keep silent about what is bad about them.
Whoever conceals the truth or does not defend it.
Breaking the Last Two Commandments
The last two commandments set a goal or target which we should attain. Daily and penitently we must strive toward this goal with God’s help and grace because our evil desires will not die completely until our flesh is reduced to dust and then created anew.
The five senses21 are comprehended in the Fifth and Sixth Commandments; the six works of mercy in the Fifth and Seventh; the seven mortal sins—pride in the First and Second, lust in the Sixth, wrath and hatred in the Fifth, gluttony in the Sixth, sloth in the Third, and, for that matter, in all of them. The strange sins are covered by all the commandments, for it is possible to break all the commandments just by talking, advising, or helping someone. The crying and silent sins are committed against the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Commandments. In all of these deeds we can see the same thing: love of self which seeks its own advantage, robs both God and one’s neighbor of their due, and concedes neither to God nor man anything they have, or are, or could do or become. Augustine expressed this succinctly when he said, “Self-love is the beginning of every sin.”
The conclusion of all this is that the commandments demand or forbid nothing other than “love.” Only “love” fulfils and only “love” breaks the commandments. Therefore St. Paul declares that “love is the fulfilling of the law” [Rom. 13:8–10], just as an “evil love” breaks all the commandments.
Fulfilling the Commandments
Fear and love God in true faith, at all times, firmly trusting him in all that he does, accepting in simple, quiet confidence everything whether good or bad. What all of Scripture records about faith and hope and the love of God [I Cor. 13:13] belongs here and is briefly comprehended in this commandment.
Praise, honor, glorify, and call upon God’s name, and rather sink into utter nothingness so that God alone be exalted, who is in all things and works in everything [Rom. 8:28; 11:36; Eph. 4:6]. Here belongs all that Scripture teaches about giving glory, honor, and thanksgiving to God and rejoicing in him.
Yield to God so that all we do is done by him alone through us. This commandment requires a person to be poor in spirit [Matt. 5:3], to sacrifice his nothingness to God so that He may be that sours only God and that in that soul God’s deeds may be glorified [II Cor. 9:13] as the first two commandments require. Here belongs everything required of us: serving God, listening to what is preached about God, doing good deeds, subjecting the body to the spirit [I Cor. 9:27]. And so that all we accomplish is God’s and nothing our own.
Show a willing obedience, humility, submissiveness to all authority as pleasing to God, as the Apostle St. Peter says [I Pet. 2:13], without protesting, complaining, and murmuring. Here belongs all that Scripture says regarding our obedience, humility, submissiveness, and giving honor.
Patience, meekness, kindness, peaceableness, mercy, and in every circumstance a tender and friendly heart, devoid of all hatred, anger, bitterness toward any person, even our enemies. Here belong all precepts concerning patience, meekness, peace, and harmonious relationships with others. V 43, p 23
Chastity, decency, modesty in deeds, speech, attitude, and thought. Also moderation in eating, drinking, sleeping, and doing whatever encourages chastity. Here belong all precepts concerning sexual restraint, fasting, sobriety, temperance, praying, being vigilant, working hard, and whatever else furthers sexual restraint.
To be poor in spirit [Matt. 5:3], generous, willing to lend or give of our possessions, and to live free of avarice and covetousness. Here belongs all that is to be taught about avarice, fraudulent gain, deceit, craftiness, or allowing harm to happen to or hindering our neighbor’s keeping what belongs to him.
A peaceful and beneficial manner of speech which harms no one and benefits everyone, reconciles the discordant, excuses and defends the maligned, that is, a manner of speech which is truthful and sincere. Here belong all precepts concerning when to keep silent and when to speak in matters affecting our neighbor’s reputation, rights, concerns, and happiness.
The Last Two
They mean: perfect chastity and thorough disregard for all temporal pleasures and possessions—something not attainable until we reach the life beyond this one.
In all such actions we see nothing but a strange, all-comprehending love toward God and our neighbor which never seeks its own advantage but only what serves God and our neighbor [I Cor. 13:5]. It means to devote oneself freely to belonging to one’s neighbor and serving him and his concerns.
Now you see that the Ten Commandments contain in a brief and orderly manner all precepts needful for a person’s life. Anyone wishing to keep them all will find enough good deeds to do to fill every hour of the day; he need not hunt for other things to do, running here and there to do things which are not commanded [in Scripture].
We have clearly emphasized that these commandments prescribe nothing that man is to do or leave undone for his own advantage, or expect of others for himself, but rather what a person is to do or leave undone toward his neighbor, toward God, and toward his fellowman. Therefore we must comprehend the fulfilment of the commandments as meaning love for others and not for ourselves. For a person is more than enough inclined to occupy himself with whatever benefits himself as things are. He needs no precepts for doing this, but needs to be restrained in this direction. The person who lives the best life does not live for himself; he who lives for himself lives the most dastardly kind of life. This is what the Ten Commandments teach and they show us how few persons really live a good life, yes, that not one person is able to live this good life. Now that we recognize this, we must find out where to get the [medicinal] herbs to enable us to live a good life and fulfil the commandments.
19 Such superstition was condemned in the Poenitentiale of Bartholomew Iscanus, bishop of Exeter (1161–1186). C. G. Moulton, Life in the Middle Ages, Vol. I (Cambridge, 1930), p. 33.
20 Luther uses an old Latin term of scorn, fatue, from which the word “fatuous” is derived. Evidently the ancient epithet was still used in his time.
21 Sins were classified in traditional prayer books by the five physical senses. A similar classification was the four sins that cry to heaven, that is, the silent sins.
 Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 43: Luther’s works, vol. 43: Devotional Writings II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) (17–24). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.