“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
“But if ye had known what this meaneth, ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the guiltless.”
Order of Contents
On How Positive Commands Are Not to be Done at All Times & Circumstances 4
On the Priority of not Doing that which is Forbidden over Keeping that which is Commanded 2
McCurley, Rob – ‘First Things First’ on Mt. 22:36-38.
Rev. McCurley is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).
When a positive command towards God contradicts a positive command of the creature, we are to prefer and perform the obligation to God (inasmuch as He has greater authority). In this regard there is a priority of the First Table of the Law to the Second Table (when no harm to the creature is in view), which McCurley expounds.
However, not doing what God forbids, always overrides positive commands (as sin is never to be done). Hence if a positive command towards the First Table of the Law conflicts with a prohibition in the Second Table of the Law, we must first not transgress our duty to man. God prefers necessity and mercy to the creature before fulfilling positive commands to Himself when the two conflict, as He puts others before Himself when harm to the creature is in view.
Order of Quotes
The Divine Right of Church Government (London, 1646), Appendix, ‘An Introduction to the Doctrine of Scandal’, Question 4, p. 49-53, this is in the context of civil and/or episcopally imposed ceremonies going under the name of indifferent matters, though they scandalize the godly.
“Answer 1: Here be the white-shifts of Mr. Sanderson, Paybodie, Downham, who place loyalty above charity. We owe to our brother love, but to the ruler (say they) love and justice.
[Answer] 2. It is true, these duties which we owe to others by way of justice are more obligatory than these which we owe only by way of charity, caeteris paribus [all things being equal], when duties of the law of Nature, and moral Law, are compared together, then indeed the duties which we owe, both by the tie of justice and charity, are more obligatory, than the duties that we owe only by the tie of charity. As for example:
My father is in danger before my eyes to be drowned in one deep water; and before my eyes also, my neighbor and friend is in danger of the like kind; the two ties and bands of justice and charity, both by the fifth and sixth Commandments are more obligatory, hic & nunc [here and now], and do more strictly oblige that I run to succor, and preserve the life of my father, than the life of my neighbor; for the obligation to my neighbor, is only charity, by the obligation of the sixth Commandment, which obligation ceases, hic & nunc, at this time when my father’s life is in hazard;
and thus far the doctor’s argument goes for strong, as schoolmen, casuists, and divines teach. But it is not to a purpose for the Doctor’s; For all offices and duties generally, and universally, of whatever kind which we owe by way of justice, are not more obligatory than duties which we owe only by way of charity, as when duties of a positive commandment of God, enjoined by our superiors, and duties which we owe by charity only are compared together, then the Doctor’s major proposition is not clear of itself, as they dream, nor do casuists or [William] Ames, or divines say with them, but truth, and all our divines say against them.
Let us suppose that the King, and convocation, and assembly of priests and prophets of Israel make a canon according to God’s Word. That no manner of man presume to eat showbread, save the priests only. All men owe obedience to this, both because it is God’s express Law, and by the band of justice, the elders and assembly of the ancients have forbidden it.
But if our Doctor’s argument stand strong, David at the point and hazard of famishing for hunger, sinned in eating showbread, yet Christ acquits him of all sin, and says, Mt. 12:5, he and his followers are [in Greek] blameless. Now David was under a duty by mercy, and love to his own life, and the lives of his followers, to eat showbread, and he was under the band of justice, by the law of the ancients of Israel, and God’s law, not to eat.
Therefore in some cases, when our superiors’ commandments are only positive laws, they are not more obligatory, than duties of charity only commanded in the law of nature.
I clear it further thus:
I see my neighbor in danger before my eyes of drowning, and my father commands me to go and labor, or sow his farm in that time while I am to preserve the life of my neighbor in present danger, to lose his life in a great water. By the Doctor’s maxim, I am under the higher obligatory tie of justice to obey my father, who commands a thing both lawful and necessary by virtue of the higher commandment, to wit, the First of the Second Table, than I am obliged by the sixth Commandment, and of charity only, to give present succor and help to my dying neighbor; so I must let my neighbor die in the waters, to give a duty of justice to my father, of far less necessity.
I would not commit my conscience to such casuists, as are the doctors of Aberdeen. But if the doctors would see with some new light of reason; it is clear that not only the tie of justice makes the precept more obligatory, but also the weightiness of the thing commanded;
Yea, and if the positive commandments of the Lord our God, who of justice and kingly sovereignty has right to ask obedience of us above all earthly superiors do yield and cede as less obligatory, than commandments of love only, that are commanded in the law of nature, what do our Doctors clatter and fable to us of a right of justice that mortal rulers have to command in things indifferent, from which the destruction of souls does arise?
For these commandments of rulers, (kneel religiously before bread, the vice-gerent image of Christ crucified) (keep human holy-days), cross the air with your thumb above a baptized infant’s face) at best, are but positive commandments, not warranted by God’s Word. But shall they be more obligatory by a supposed band of justice that prelates have over us to command, such toys than this divine law of God and Nature, Rom. 14. For indifferent days, meats, surplice, destroy not him for whom Christ died?
All the casuists, and schoolmen, Navarra, Sylvester, Sanchez, Raphael de la Torre, Meratius, Duvallius, Thomas, Scotus, Bonaventura, Suarez, Vasquez, Grego. de Valentia, Albertus, Richardus, Biel, Corduba, Angelus, Adrianus, Alphonsus, Becanus, yea, and all the host of our divines cry with Scripture that mercy and the precepts of love, and of the Law of nature, are more obligatory than sacrifice, burnt offerings, and God’s own positive laws, yea, and that positive laws lose their obligatory power, and cease to be laws, when the laws of nature and necessary duties of mercy and love (as not to murder our brother) (not to scandalize) stands in their way. I might weary the reader here with citations, and bewilder myself also, but it is a point of divinity denied by none at all.
[Answer] 3. What we owe of Justice to our superiors, is indeed both a moral debt of obedience, and a debt of justice, and law which rulers may seek by their place, and ex jure, as Aristotle says, but this right is limited; Rulers have no right to seek absolute obedience, but only in the Lord, not against charity. And though the place of rulers be authoritative, yet their commanding power, as touching the matter of what they enjoin is only ministerial, and they cannot but in God’s place exact, that which is God’s due, and seeing God Himself, if he should immediately in his own person command, He would not urge a positive commandment, far less the commandment of light and vain ceremonies, against and beyond the precept of love, not to destroy a soul for whom Christ died. Therefore, superiors under God, who borrow all their right from God, cannot have a higher right than God has.
[Answer] 4. The comparison [of the Doctors] of a man who owes money to a creditor, and owes money to the poor, is close off the way, for he is obliged to pay the creditor first, but the case here is far otherwise; The debt of practicing indifferent feathers and straws, such as kneeling, crossing, wearing surplice, is neither like the debt owing to the poor, nor to the creditor; For nature’s law, and God’s Word, 1 Cor. 10:18-19, makes the non-practice, non-murdering obedience to God, when the practice of indifferent things, is a soul-stumbling to the weak, and the practicing is but at its best obedience to a positive Law, and ought to stoop, and go off the way and disappear when nature’s Law (murder not) does come in its way.
When the Doctors put loyalty above charity, they suppose obedience to commandments commanding scandalizing of souls to be loyalty to superiors, which is questioned, it being treason to the Sovereign of heaven and earth to destroy his image; it is tatherf∣ken as loyalty by our Doctors, but not proven to be loyalty, and so a vain question here, whether loyalty be above charity or not.”
The Law Unsealed: or, a Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments… (Glasgow, 1676), First Sermon, on the Preface of the Decalogue, Ex. 20:1-2
“6. The sixth distinction is of the Moral Law in two Tables, first and second; The first contains our immediate worship, and service and obedience to God Himself, and is comprehended in the first four Commandments; the second contains our mediate obedience to God in all the duties we owe to other [persons], in the last six they were at first so divided by the Lord Himself, for there are Ten in all, Deut. 4:13. From this distinction take notice:
1. That all the commandments of the second Table are of like authority with the first, God spake all these words; yea, as it appears from Acts 7:38, it was our Lord Jesus [who gave the Law at Sinai].
2. The sins immediately against the first Table, are greater than those against the second; for this cause, Mt. 22:38, the first is called the First and Great Commandment: Therefore:
3. In morals (if they be things of the same nature) the duties of the second Table cede and give place to the duties of the first Table, when they cannot stand together; as in the case of love to God, and the exercise of love to our Father and neighbor, Lk. 14:26; Mt. 20:37. When obedience to God and obedience to our superiors cannot consist, we are to obey God rather than man, Acts 4:19, and we are to love the Lord, and hate father and mother, Lk. 14:6.
4. Yet take notice, that ceremonials or positives of the first Table, for a time cede and give place to morals in the second; as for relieving or preserving our neighbor’s life in hazard, we may travel on the Sabbath day, according to that Scripture, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice,’ and ‘the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,’ etc.
Institutes, vol. 2, 11th Topic, ‘The Law of God’, Question 6, ‘The Rules of Explanation and of Observance of the Decalogue’, Sections VI & VIII, pp. 35-37
“VI. Fifth, ‘the precepts of the first table take the preference of those of the second’ as to necessary internal and external acts, when they both cannot have place at the same time. Thus the love of our neighbor ought to be subjected to the love of God. We are bound to hate father and mother for Christ’s sake (Lk. 14:26), when the love of parents is incompatible (asystatos) with the love of Christ. Human commands are to be neglected when opposed to the commands of God (Mt. 10:37; Acts 4:19). But in turn ‘the ceremonial of the first table yields to the moral of the second because God desires mercy and not sacrifice’ (Hos. 6:6), i.e., moral worship principally and primarily as better and of itself necessary; the ceremonial, however, only secondarily on account of the moral. Hence we ought not to be so anxious about the former as about the latter.
VIII. Seventh, ‘the beginning and end of all the precepts is love.’… However as the object of love is twofold (God and our neighbor), so a twofold love is commanded: of God in the first table of the law; of our neighbor in the second. That is called ‘the first and great commandment’; this ‘the second like to it.’ The love of God is rightly called the ‘first’ commandment because as there is nothing before God, so his worship ought first to be attended to by us in order that all things may begin from and end in it. It is called ‘great’ (a) with regard to the object because conversant with the greatest and infinite object (viz., God)…
The second is said to be ‘like’ unto it, not with regard to importance, but (1) with regard to quality because both in the love of God and of our neighbor sincerity and purity of heart are required; (2) with regard to authority because each is commanded by God and tends to his glory; (3) with regard to punishment because the violation of either table exposes to eternal death; (4) with regard to connection and dependence because they are so strictly connected with each other that neither can be fulfilled without the other (for as God cannot be loved without the love of God, who created him)…”
On How Positive Commands Are Not to be Done at All Times & Circumstances
Order of Quotes
Westminster Larger Catechism, #99.5
“5. That what God forbids, is at no time to be done;[w] what He commands, is always our duty;[x] and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.[y]
The Law Unsealed: or, a Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments… (Glasgow, 1676), First Sermon, on the Preface of the Decalogue, Ex. 20:1-2
7. The seventh distinction (which is ordinary) is of the commandments into affirmative and negative…
2. Though the positive commandment, or (the positive part of the commandment) be of alike force and authority with the negative, as to the obligation it lays on us to duty, yet it does not tie us to all occasions and times, as negatives do: Hence is that common maxim, that affirmative commands tie and oblige semper, ever, that is, they never want their authority, and we are never absolved from their obedience, but they do not oblige and tie ad semper, that is, in all differences of time we are not tied to the exercise of the duties enjoined; negatives again oblige both semper and ad semper, that is, always, and in all differences of time: For instance, in the third Commandment, the affirmative part is to use the Lord’s Name, and ordinances holily and reverently in prayer, reading and hearing, etc. So in the fourth Commandment we are required to sanctify the Sabbath, by waiting on ordinances, etc. This makes these still duties, so as to pray, hear, etc. are still duties, but we are not to be, and should not be always exercised in these duties, for we must abound in other duties also of necessity, and mercy, we must eat, and sleep, etc. and when we sleep, we can neither act love, nor fear. Again, the negative part is, not to profane the Lord’s Name in his ordinances; this may not be done at any time: The reason of the difference is this, because in affirmatives we are not always tied to the acts of duties and graces, but to the disposition and habit. Habits are a apiritual quality, a (vis) or power sitting and enabling for bringing forth these acts; and for the bringing them forth in the due time and season, when they shall be called for; but in sinful things we are prohibited, not only the habits, but the acts also: the one is always and ever a sin, but the other is not always called for as duty. If any desire rules to know when a duty is called for; as for instance, when we are to pray, hear, etc. it is hardly possible to be particular in this, yet we may try it by these generals:
1. Any affirmative Precept binds to present practise, when the duty required tends to Gods glory, unto which every thing should be done (as 1 Corinth▪ 10. 31.) and when the omission of the duty may dishonor him.
2. When it tends to others edification, and omitting will some way stumble and offend.
3. When some special providences meet and concur, to give opportunity for such a duty; as for instance, the giving of aims when we have it, and some indigent person offers, whose necessity calls for it, Gal. 6:10. So when secrecy for prayer is offered (and no other more necessary duty at that time is called for), which we are to watch unto, Col. 4:2, or when we meet with some special occasion or dispensation, pointing out to us this or that as a duty called for, such a providence invites us to the practice of that duty: for though providences will not make these things to become duties which are not duties, yet they will serve to time and circumstantiate duties that lie on us, by virtue of affirmative precepts.
4. Some special occasions and times are set down in the Word, as for praying morning and evening, for hearing the Word on Sabbath days; and in these, and other the like duties, the examples of the saints, so recorded for imitation in Scripture, would be observed as a copy and pattern.
5. When they have not such inconveniences with them, as cross and hinder other moral duties of edification, love, etc. for if they do that, they must yield and give place to these; but if no other duty be called for, then they ought to be done, for we should be in some duty. And though such duties be in themselves moral, suppose praying, hearing, and such others, which might be instanced, yet the timing of them, or going about them at such a time, and in such a manner, is not moral simply, but as these are by circumstances called for.
6. When without sin such a duty cannot be omitted; and although there be not any inward exercise of mind, or frame of spirit suitable thereto, yet the conscience calls for it, or there is some on special occasion or other that puts us to it.
3. Observe, that this rule of negatives tying ad semper, or obliging in all circumstances of time, is not to be understood, but where the matter is moral; therefore we would distinguish again betwixt negative morals, and negative positives, for positives, whether negative or affirmative, give still place to morals. As for instance, that part of the fourth Commandment is negative. In it (that is, on the seventh day) ‘Thou shalt do no manner of work,’ yet sometimes, when necessity calls for it, some manner of works is lawful on that day, because it is only a negative positive, and not a negative moral: And so David’s eating of Show-bread, was against a negative command, though not against a negative moral, but a negative positive.”
Institutes, vol. 2, 11th Topic, ‘The Law of God’, Question 6, ‘The Rules of Explanation and of Observance of the Decalogue’, Sections VII & XII, pp. 35-37
“VII. Sixth [Rule], ‘some precepts are affirmative’ (ordering things to be done, sins of omission); ‘others negative’ (prohibiting things to be avoided, sins of commission). ‘The former bind always, but not to always, the latter bind always to always.’ The virtues and duties commanded by the affirmative precepts cannot be exercised every moment together at once, and suppose certain conditions (which being absent, there is no place for them); for example, parents are not always alive or near us, so that we can render them their due respect. But the vices and crimes prohibited can be committed lawfully in no article of time. Here, however, we must make an exception of the general affirmative command to love God (which obliges always and to always) because there is no time or place or state in which man can be exempted from the duty of loving God.
XII. Fourth [Rule of Obedience], as the precepts do not have an equal degree of importance and necessity, so neither is the obedience to be reckoned of the same order and value… The omission of a command is one thing; opposition to it another; forgetfulness, neglect and contempt are different. Neglect proceeds from the langor of slothfulness…”
The Law of God as Contained in the Ten Commandments, Explained and Enforced (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1864), p. 35
“We are to do our duties as we have opportunity. We should always be in a right state of mind and heart to do what is required, if the occasion offers.”
On the Priority of not Doing that which is Forbidden over Keeping that which is Commanded (when they cannot be done at the same time)
If one could, and must do positive commands, though it entails the least amount of sin, that would be contrary to Paul’s question, “Shall we sin that grace may abound? (Rom. 6:1) It would also make doing good and keeping God’s commands a means of evil; God forbid it. There is no example of Christ doing good while yet procuring evil by it.
“First, do no harm.”
Ezekiel Hopkins – pp. 31-32 of An Exposition of the Ten Commandments (1692)
Hopkins was an Anglican divine who was a bishop in Derry, Ireland.
“Observe, also, that every negative command binds always and to every moment of time; but the affirmative precepts, though they bind always, yet they do not bind to every moment; that is, as to the habit of obedience, they do; but not as to the acts…
The first commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,’ binds always, and to every moment of time; so that he is guilty of idolatry whosoever shall at any time set up any other god to worship besides the Lord Jehovah. But the affirmative precept, which is included in this negative, namely, to worship, to love, to invoke, to depend on God, though it obliges us always (for we must never act contrary hereunto) and likewise obliges us to every moment of time, in respect to the habits of divine love, and faith and worship; yet it does not oblige us to every moment in respect of the acts of these habits; for it is impossible to be always actually praying, praising and worshipping God, neither is it required , for this would make one duty shock and interfere with another.
But now the negative precepts oblige us to every moment of time; and whosoever ceaseth the observance of them for any one moment, is thereby involved in sin, and becomes guilty, and a transgressor before God… Now there is no moment of time whatsoever that can render the non-observance of these commands allowable, nor are there any circumstances that can excuse it from guilt…
Whereas, in the affirmative precepts, there are some times and seasons to which we are not bound, so as actually to perform the duties enjoined us. This I suppose is clear, and without exception.”
Body of Divinity… (New York: Robert Carter, 1855), vol. 2, p. 313
“V. That what God forbids, is at no time to be done; what He commands, is always our duty, and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.
Thus sin is, under no pretense, to be committed. Accordingly, Moses, when he was in a prosperous condition in Pharaoh’s court, though he might have pretended that his greatness and the advantages which Israel might have expected from it, would be an excuse for his continuing to enjoy the pleasures of sin there; yet he was sensible that these considerations would not exempt him from guilt. Hence, ‘he forsook Egypt, and chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin.”
Again, what God commands is always a duty; so that there is no season of life m which it ceases to be so, for example, praying, reading, hearing the Word, etc. Yet these duties are not actually to be engaged in every moment of our lives. It is always our duty to visit the sick, comfort the afflicted, defend the oppressed; but such objects do not always present themselves to us, so as to render it our duty at all times.”
“Elijah had… slain all the [false] prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, ‘So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow…’ And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life… And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.”
1 Kings 19:1-8
“Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…”