The Scope of Commandment Nine

The Lord is lord of all truth. God is always truthful. He never deceives. The Lord’s yes is always yes, and his no is always no. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are united in the triune God of truth. How does man access that truth? Is God simply aloof to his creation and his truth inaccessible? Is truth reachable through mysterious means or incantations? No. God has made his truth readily available to anyone that takes up and reads. When Jesus prayed the High Priestly Prayer for his disciples in John 17, He said, “Sanctify them in thy truth, thy word is truth” (v. 17). God’s truth comes forth in the Bible which includes the author Moses who received a portion of inscripturated truth in the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. The Decalogue was written by the finger of God in stone because its foundational presentation of His will for man was essential for Israel as both the spiritual church and the political nation. The Ten Commandments are blessings because each one definitively presents the truth of God regarding the prohibitions addressed. The Commandments were given to the Hebrew people, but they are fundamental law in general as they present in special revelation, the Bible, what is generally known through general revelation, creation and conscious. Why is it wrong to worship any entity other than God? Because the first commandment says so. Why is it wrong to steal? Because God says so in the eighth commandment. But most importantly for this article, why is it wrong to lie? Because God says so in the ninth commandment.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. (Exodus 20:16)

But there is much more to the ninth commandment than a simple lie. If preschooler Billy is asked by Mom, “Did you get a cookie from the cookie jar?,” and he responds emphatically with the evidence of crumbs still around his lips, “No, Mommy, you told me not to!,” this is clearly a simple lie of convenience. A simple lie is still a lie. Billy knew he sinned by invading the jar and pilfering a cookie, but the lie postponed very briefly the inevitable discipline to be meted by his loving mother. But bearing false witness goes well beyond a simple lie presented in response to an embarrassing situation.

Both the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms expand on the meaning of the ninth commandment. Currently, catechesis is no more vogue than confessions of faith, but these documents that are the immediate products of the Reformation summarize essential truths for ready cognitive access concerning doctrine and discipleship. The Shorter Catechism provides an exposition of the commandment.

Q. 76. Which is the ninth commandment?

A. The ninth commandment is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

Q. 77. What is required in the ninth commandment?

A. The ninth commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbor’s good name, especially in witness-bearing.

Q. 78. What is forbidden in the ninth commandment?

A. The ninth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbor’s good name.

The Shorter Catechism provides the meaning of the commandment in brief. Notice that it not only forbids, but also requires, so that there is encouragement to be truthful as well as rebuke of sin. The Larger Catechism develops the requirements more fully.

Q. 144. What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?

A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

Q. 145. What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of the truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vainglorious boasting, thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any; endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.

Is there anything the Westminster Assembly missed as it expounded the commandment? Even though this list is extensive, it is not complete because the depth of Scripture cannot be plumbed. Obedience to the Law is impossible for the Christian in this life, but the Lord nevertheless said, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Absolute perfection; perfectly perfect; no jots or tittles transgressed is what God requires. Is there any hope? Martin Luther said an aspect of the Law is it acts as a schoolmaster exposing sin and turning people to Christ for redemption from their hopeless situations. When Christ said to be perfect, it was a requirement he met fully and as the perfect lamb he atoned for the sin of his people. Catechisms are evangelistic in their presentation of the commandments because the overwhelming requirements listed in the answers direct readers through the Holy Spirit to relief in Christ. The Lord was and is perfect having fulfilled the ninth commandment even beyond the detailed presentation in the catechisms, and His perfect obedience is laid to the account of all those justified by faith.

Thomas Watson (1620-1686) was a Presbyterian living in England during the era when the Westminster Assembly met, but he did not attend the sessions. He was against the execution of King Charles I and was suspected by the roundheads (anti-royalists) of being a cavalier (a royalist). When he wrote about bearing false witness, he likely had experience being on the receiving end of false witness against him that contributed to his imprisonment. As he opened his exposition of the ninth commandment in A Body of Divinity, he said,

The tongue which at first was made to be an organ of God’s praise, is now become an instrument of unrighteousness. This commandment binds the tongue to its good behavior. God hath set two fences to keep in the tongue, the teeth and lips; and this commandment is a third fence set about it, that it should not break forth into evil; thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Using human anatomy Watson expressed the meaning of James 3:9 when he exposed the dangers of the tongue saying, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the image of God.” Notice the use of “people made in the image of God” because it brings to mind the absolute truthfulness of God which is to come forth in the lives of those bearing His image. Then, as Watson concluded his comments on the ninth commandment, he made additional comments.

The mandatory part of this commandment implied: that is, that we should stand up for others and vindicate them, when they are injured by lying lips. This is the sense of the commandment, not only that we should not slander or falsely accuse others, but that we should witness for them, and stand up in their defense, when we know them to be traduced.

There is much more to the ninth commandment than merely telling a lie. The commandment is concerned with being true and defending truth in all areas of life. Currently, the means for lying, defamation, and simple gossip are manifold. Social media provides readily accessible means for impulsive and vindictive comments about others. How many political leaders have made headlines by tapping out a sentence or two of digital communication before thinking through its implications? Tragically, how many young people are abused by foul social media communications posted by their peers that resulted in some taking their own lives? What is more, it is so easy to forward these communications to perpetuate gossip. Christian, put a stop to it and do not pass on the poison whether it is with physical speech, insulting mannerisms, or digital communications. It would be good to resurrect the wisdom of old and bite our tongues when the opportunity for passing gossip arises. If you are a young person, stand up for truth among your classmates, you might even save a life. Yes, the ninth commandment prohibits lying, but it also promotes truth telling, defending the good names of others, and manifesting the truth in which Jesus’ disciples are to be sanctified.

Barry Waugh (PhD, WTS) is the editor of Presbyterians of the Past. He has written for various periodicals, such as the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He has also contributed to Gary L. W. Johnson’s, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (2007) and edited Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I (2012).