On the Relations Between the 1st & 2nd Tables of the Law

“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.”

Mt. 22:37-39

“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.”

Lk. 14:26

“But if ye had known what this meaneth, ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the guiltless.”

Mt. 12:7




Natural vs. Instituted Worship
Works of Necessity & Mercy on Sabbath
Public Worship under Persecution
Establishment Principle



Order of Contents

Articles  3
Quotes  6
Latin  1

Worship: a Difference Between the Tables  4
Positive Commands Are Not to be Done at All Times & Circumstances  6
Priority of Not Doing that which is Forbidden Over Keeping that which is
.      Commanded  2





Burroughs, Jeremiah – on Hosea 6:6, ‘Mercy & Sacrifice’  from  An Exposition of the Prophecy of Hosea (1643-1657; Solid Ground Christian Books, 2006), pp. 332-333, as compiled and introduced by Andrew Myers.

Durham, James – On the 5th Commandment, pp. 295-99  in The Law Unsealed, or a Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments…  7th ed.  (Glasgow: 1777)

Manton, Thomas – ‘The Preference of Duties: Morals Before Rituals’  on Mt. 9:13  in Works, vol. 2, Several Discourses Tending to Promote Peace and Holiness, pp. 6-22

“…Hosea, ch. 6:6, where a general reason is intimated, that a ceremony of the Levitical Law must not hinder a necessary duty of the moral law.  Therefore his conversing with them for their
edification was not unlawful nor uncomely, for all rituals must give way to morals…

these words are brought not only to vindicate this fact of Christ, but secretly to tax the Pharisaical hypocrisy of those who place religion in rituals more than morals.” – p. 2

“Mercy comprehends the duties of the Second Table, as the knowledge of God the duties of the First Table.  Now this piety towards God and charity towards our neighbour was more acceptable service towards God than all the rites of their external worship.” – p. 4

“There are commandments which may be called the least, and there are others which may be called the greatest, In ordine motum [in the order of the motion], the order shows the weight.  The fundamental article of the Covenant is to have God for our God, and to prefer natural worship before instituted: the means stated, before manner and time [of them]; God before man; parents before others.” – p. 7



Order of Quotes






William Perkins

A Discourse of Conscience…  (Cambridge, 1596), pp. 14-15

“I.  When two commandments of the moral law are opposite in respect of use as we can not do them both at the same time: then the lesser commandment gives place to the greater and does not bind for that instant.

Example 1.  God commands one thing, and the magistrate commands the flat contrary: in this case which of these two commandments must be obeyed, ‘Honor God,’ or, ‘Honor the Magistrate’?  The answer is, that the latter must give place to the former, and the former must only be obeyed.  Acts 4:19, ‘Whether it be right in the sight of God to obey you rather than God judge ye.’

II.  The 4th Commandment prescribes rest on the Sabbath day.  Now it [falls?] out that at the same time [that] a whole town set on fire, and the Sixth Commandment requires our help in saving our neighbor’s life and goods.  Now of these two commandments, which must be obeyed?  For both cannot.  The answer is that the Fourth Commandment at this time is to give place, and the Sixth Commandment alone binds the conscience: so as then (if need should require) a man might labor all the day without offence to God.  Mt. 9:13, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice.’

And the rule must not be omitted that charity towards our neighbor is subordinate to the love of God, and therefore must give place to it.  For this cause the commandment concerning charity must give place to the commandment concerning love to God: and when the case so falls out that we must either offend our neighbor or God, we must rather offend our neighbor than God.”


George Gillespie

English Popish Ceremonies  (1637), pt. 2, ch. 1

p. 4

“Mr. Sprint [an opponent] himself lays down one ground which proves the refusing of inconvenient ceremonies to be a greater duty than the preaching of the Word: for he holds that the substantials of the Second Table do overrule the ceremonials of the First Table, according to that which God says, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice,’ (Mt. 12:7).  And elsewhere he teaches that to tend a sick person ready to die is a greater duty than the hearing of the Word.

Now to practice inconvenient and scandalous ceremonies is to commit soul-murder, and so to break one of the most substantial duties of the Second Table.  Therefore, according to Mr. Sprint’s own ground, the refusing of inconvenient and scandalous ceremonies is a greater duty than the preaching of the Word, which is but a ceremonial of the First Table, and if the neglect of tending a sick person’s body be a greater sin than to omit the hearing of many sermons, much more to murder the souls of men by practicing inconvenient and scandalous ceremonies, is a greater sin than to omit the preaching of many sermons, which is all the omission (if there be any) of those who suffer deprivation for refuising to conform unto inconvenient ceremonies.”


p. 10

“The apostle says, ‘If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.’ (1 Cor. 8:13)  Now put the case the apostle had been hindered from preaching the Gospel for his precise abstaining from those meats whereat his brother would be offended, would he in that case have eaten?  Nay, he says peremptorily that whiles the world stands, he would not eat.”


Samuel Rutherford

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.”


Question 6, pp. 81-82

“…in the doctrine of scandal, which is more intricate and obscure than every divine conceives, God places acts of providential necessity as emergent significations of his approving will, which are so to us in place of a divine commandment of God’s revealed will, and these providential acts of necessity do no less oblige us to moral obedience than any of the express written commandments of God.  I clear it thus:

There is an express law, It is sin and unlawful for David, or any man, who is not one of the Lord’s priests, to eat showbread.  But God comes in and puts David in such a posture of divine providence that if he eat not showbread, he shall be sinfully guilty of violating a higher moral law of God, who says, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice.’  Then David shall be cruel to his own life, and sin against the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ if he eat not; for not to eat, when you are in a providential condition of starving, if you may have it, is to kill yourself, and this providential condition does no less oblige you to the moral obedience of the Sixth Command than if God in the letter of the Law should command you to eat.

This fact of David was not done by any extraordinary impulsion of the Spirit, but by a constant channel that providence ordinarily runs in, according to which I, or any professor [of Christianity] must be obliged to prefer a work of mercy to sacrifice, that is, by which we are to give obedience to the Sixth Command, which is not to kill; even as without extraordinary impulsion, I may absent myself from hearing the Word when I find going to Church may endanger my life, for non-obedience to affirmatives [affirmative commands] in a greater necessity is ordinary.

And therefore Christian prudence, with which the Wisdom of God keeps house, Prov. 8:12, does determine many things of scandal: And prudence is a virtue commanded in the Word of God, for a wise man observes times, and so will he observe all other circumstances…

4th Rule.  That which is necessary, in specie, ‘in the kind’, as to go to Church and hear the Word, to come to the house of God and Worship, may be, in individuo, in a particular exigence of providence, not morally necessary, but the contradicent thereof morally lawful.  David does lawfully forbear to come to the Lord’s house, if he knew Saul may kill him, by the way.”


James Durham

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.


Francis Turretin

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)…”


John Howe

pp. 278-9  of ‘Some Consideration of a Preface to an Inquiry Concerning the Occasional Conformity of Dissenters, etc.’  in The Works of John Howe, vol. 5, Containing the Treatises: On Divine Prescience and the Trinity…  (Religious Tract Society, 1863)

“Negative precepts oblige to every point of time.  Affirmative do not so.  He that is always under obligation to pray solemnly, is not obliged to be always solemnly at prayer.  The worship of God is better than most actions of our lives; yet the saving of a town or house from fire, yea, plucking of a sheep or an ox out of a ditch, is sometimes to be preferred.

The most sacred, external act of duty becomes sin, when it excludes that which is more a duty at that time.  How fatal, how totally destructive an error might it have proved, before, to the Jewish nation, always to have thought it unlawful to defend themselves on the Sabbath-Day! (as it was once said to have been; Plutarch, de Superst.)”





Rivet, Andrew – Rule 6, pp. 9-10  of ‘What Rules are to be Observed in Explaining the Decalogue’  in Lectures in Ch. 20 of Exodus…  (Leiden, 1632)



On Worship being a Difference Between the Tables


Zachary Ursinus

The Sum of Christian Religion… (Oxford: Barnes, 1587), pt. 3, ‘Of the Law of God’, 6. ‘How the Decalogue is Divided’, p. 869

“Now generally in the Decalogue is commanded the worship of God: that which is contrary to God’s worship is forbidden.  The worship of God is either immediate, when moral works are immediately performed unto God: or mediate, when Moral works are performed unto our neighbor in respect of God.”



Amandus Polanus

Substance of Christian Religion Soundly set forth in Two Books, by Definitions & Partitions…  (London, 1595), bk. 2, ‘So much concerning the adjuncts of good works: their kinds follow’, p. 188

“Good works are two fold: that is either the works of God’s worship, or of virtue.  The former, that is, God’s worship, is commanded in the first table of the ten commandments: the other in the second.”


Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), Intro, section 6, pp. 87-88

“But that this may be the clearer, I conceive that there is a twofold, immediate honoring of God in the worship of God:

1.  An honoring of God less immediate, as hearing of the Word, is an immediate honoring of God, because honor flows immediately from God, both ex conditione operis, and ex conditione operantis; ‘from the nature of the work’, and ‘[from the] intention of the worker’: yet it is a less immediate honoring of God, in regard that I may also hear the Word even from the condition of the work, and so from the intrinsic end of the worker that I may learn to know God and believe; for thus far I am led to honor God immediately in hearing the Word, that action of its own nature conveying honor to God; there intervenes also a medium amidst between me and honoring of God, to wit, the preacher or the Bible (to which no external adoration is due):

[2.]  There is another more immediate worship, to wit, praising of God, from which, by an immediate result, God is honored, and in worship especially, strictly, immediate, God is immediately honored both in the intention of the work and the intrinsic end of it, and the intention of the worker; though no other thing be done, and others be not edified either in knowledge, increase of faith or any other ways:

And in this, duties of the Second Table, of mercy and justice, differ from worship in that such acts of love and mercy, as to give alms to save the life of my brother or of his beast, are not acts of worshipping God; their intrinsic end, and the nature of the work being to do good to the creature, principally, ex natura et conditione operis, though God also thereby be honored, yet in a more secondary consideration:

For I praying to God, do immediately, from the nature of the action, honor God, though no good should either redound to myself or to the creature; thereby it is true, God, by acts of love and mercy to our neighbor, is honored two ways:

1.  In that men seeing our good works do thence take occasion to glorify our heavenly Father, whose truth teaches us by the grace of God to do these works, but the intrinsic and proper use of these is to do good to ourselves, as in works of sobriety, and to our neighbor, as in works of righteous dealing, but not immediately, and in the first and primary consideration to honor God, as in works of piety, holiness and worship, the honoring of God by secondary resultance, does issue also from these duties of righteousness, but not as from the acts of praying, praising, sacramental eating, drinking.

2.  The doer of these acts of mercy may, and is to intend, the honoring of God.”


James Durham

On the 5th Commandment, pp. 295 (bot) – 296 (top)  in The Law Unsealed, or a Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments…  7th ed.  (Glasgow: 1777)



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]

[w] Job 13:7,8Rom. 3:8Job 36:21Heb. 11:25.
[x] Deut. 4:8,9.
[y] Matt. 12:7.”


George Gillespie

English Popish Ceremonies  (1637), pt. 2, ch. 1, pp. 3-4

“…he takes from this ground that when two duties commanded of God do meet in one practice, so as we can not do them both, in this case we must performe the greatter duty and neglect the lesser.  Now, whereas he says when two duties do meet, etc., he means not that both may be duties at once, for then a man shall be so straitened that he must needs commit a sin, in that he must needs omit one of the duties.

But (as he explains himself) he calls them duties being considered apart: as to hear a sermon at the Church on the Sabbath, and to tend a sick person ready to die at home at the same time; both are duties being considered apart, but meeting together in our practice at one time, there is but one duty, because the lesser work binds not for that present.”


Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government…  (1646)

Intro, Section 4, pp. 73-4

“2.  Express and actual reference and intention to every commandment of God, or to God’s glory in every particular action, I do not urge; a habitual reference and intention I conceive is holden forth to us in Scripture: 1 Cor. 10:31.”


Appendix, pp. 81-82

“This fact of David [eating the showbread under natural and moral necessity] was not done by any extraordinary impulsion of the Spirit, but by a constant channel that providence ordinarily runs in, according to which I, or any professor [of Christianity] must be obliged to prefer a work of mercy to sacrifice, that is, by which we are to give obedience to the Sixth Command, which is not to kill; even as without extraordinary impulsion, I may absent myself from hearing the Word when I find going to Church may endanger my life, for non-obedience to affirmatives [affirmative commands] in a greater necessity is ordinary.

And therefore Christian prudence, with which the Wisdom of God keeps house, Prov. 8:12, does determine many things of scandal: And prudence is a virtue commanded in the Word of God, for a wise man observes times, and so will he observe all other circumstances…”


Henry Jeanes

The Want [Lack] of Church-Government [is] No Warrant for a Total Omission of the Lord’s Supper. Or a Brief & Scholastical Debate of that Question which has so Wonderfully Perplexed Many, Both Ministers & People: Whether or No the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper may (according to Presbyterial Principles) be Lawfully Administered [by a Minister] in an un-presbyterated church, that is, a church destitute of ruling elders. Wherein the affirmative is confirmed…  (London, 1650)  Jeanes was an English presbyterian.

p. 6

“Promulgation of a truth and Christian reproof are duties commanded by God; and yet are sometimes to be abstained from for scandals taken, by not only the weak, but also malicious.  ‘Reprove not a scorner, least he hate thee,’ Prov. 9:8; ‘speak not in the ears of a fool; for he will despise the wisdom of thy words,’ Prov. 23:9.  ‘Give not that which is holy unto dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turn again and rent you,’ Mt. 7:6.  Pro vitando scandalo cessat rigor disciplinae.  ‘To avoid scandal the rigor of discipline ceases.’

To explain this, farther recourse must be had unto that old and golden rule, Affirmativa praecepta semper obligant, non ad semper.  Affirmative precepts do always bind, but not to always; so that we are not bound to perform always what they enjoin but only Loco & tempore debitis, when we have due time and place.  Now as by the intercurrency of other circumstances, so especially by intercurrence of scandal, there may not be opportunity and seasonableness of doing what we are urged unto by some affirmative precepts; so these precepts may pro hic & nunc, cease to be obligatory.”


p. 17

“…I shall desire you to consider the ground why such affirmative precepts, as command duties relating to others, do not bind to always.  The duties that they command are principally to this end, that they do good to men for the curing of their evils, for the farthering of virtue in them.  Wherefore when prudence shows that such actions will be fruitless in respect of the end, or contrariwise harmful, they are to be forborne.”


James Durham

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 spiritual 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 Cor. 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.”


Francis Turretin

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…”


William Plumer

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.”




George Gillespie

English-Popish Ceremonies  (1637), pt. 2, ch. 1, pp. 8-9

“Do they [our divines] not teach…  That the negative precepts of the Law do bind, not only at all times, but likewise to all times (whereupon it follows that we may never do that which is inconvenient or scandalous) and that the affirmative precepts, though they bind at all times, yet not to all times, but only quando expedit [when it is set clear] (whereupon it follows that we are never bound to the practise of any duty commanded in the Law of God except only when it is expedient to be done)?

But Mr. [John] Sprint excepts against this rule that it is not generally true; for evidence whereof he alledges many things, partly false, partly impertinent, upon which I hold it not needful here to insist.  As for such examples objected by him as carry some show of making against this rule, which he dare not admit, I will make some answer thereto.  He says that sometimes even negative precepts have been lawfully violated: for these precepts were negative: none but priests must eat showbread, yet David did lawfully violate it: Thou shall do no work upon the Sabbath, yet the priests brake this and are blameless: let nothing of God’s good creatures be lost; yet Paul and his company did lawfully cast away their goods in the ship, to save their lives, etc.

Answer: Mr. Sprint might easily have understood that when divines say the affirmative precepts bind at all times, but not to all times, the negative precepts both at all times and to all times, they ever mean, specie actionis manente eadem [the kind of the action remaining the same]: so long as a[n] action forbidden in a negative precept ceases not to be evil, [is[ as long [as] the negative precept binds to all times: whereas even whiles an action commanded in an affirma∣tive precept ceases not to be good, yet the affirmative precept binds not to all times.  So that the rule is not crossed by the alledged examples, for David’s eating of the showbread, the priests’ labor upon the Sabbath, and Paul’s casting of the goods into the sea were not evil, but good actions (the kind of the action beeing changed by the circumstances).

In the mean time, the foresaid rule still crosses Mr. Sprint’s tenet.  For, he holds, that even whiles certain ceremonies remain evil in their use, and cease not to be scandalous and inconvenient, yet we are not ever bound to abstain from them, but may in the case of deprivation [of the ministerial office] practise them, which directly contradicts the rule.”



Thomas Ridgley

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 in 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.”




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.”




“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.”

Mt. 5:23-24

“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…”

Mt. 6:9-11

“Deliver me from the oppression of man: so will I keep thy precepts.”

Ps. 119:134




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