The Ten Commandments in the Reformed Tradition

Formation through Litanies, Songs, and Prayers

I started learning about church liturgy as a young boy growing up in a Reformed church in Indonesia. I was about seven or eight years old when I realized that the liturgy of my church worship correlated with daily life outside of the church. I noticed that we recited the Ten Commandments every Sunday, right after the pastor called us to repent, led the prayer of repentance, and pronounced the assurance of pardon. After that we listened to the sermon, and following the sermon we recited the Apostles’ Creed. That liturgical structure never changed in all the years of my boyhood and early teenage years.

I also went to a Christian school where we memorized the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. I understood then that reciting the Ten Commandments helped me live as a Christian. One practical example I still remember is when my classmate got a new pencil case. I wanted something similar, but my parents would remind me that I should not covet, just as the Ten Commandments tell us. As an adult, I am not sure that the application of the tenth commandment is as simplistic as what my parents taught me then, but one truth remains: reciting the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed at church every Sunday provided me with a strong Christian foundation in life.

The Reformed tradition considers the Ten Command-ments to be one of the most important pillars of the Christian faith. Ever since the sixteenth century, churches in the Reformed tradition have included the Ten Commandments in the liturgy. My church as I was growing up in Indonesia in the early 1970s continued that practice. The 1545 liturgy of the Reformed church in Strasbourg included singing the versified first table of the Ten Commandments right after the minister declared the assurance of pardon. The minister would then lead the congregation in praying that God would guide and direct the people to follow God’s law before the congregation sang the metrical version of the second table (Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, 1970, p. 198). Every time I look back at the way my childhood church conducted its worship services and ministered to the people, I am amazed at how it dearly held on to Reformation practices. And I am thankful that it did so, because it gave me a deeper understanding of what being a part of the universal church actually means. Theology, liturgy, and church practices unite us as one body.

The church in Geneva at the time of Calvin included the versified version of the Ten Commandments in its little booklet La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastique, published in 1542. This booklet, which contains liturgies for Sunday worship service, baptism, communion, and marriage, has thirty-five metrical psalms and four canticles: the Song of Simeon, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments. In my articles in Reformed Worship 149 and 150 I discussed the singing of metrical psalms and canticles in the Reformed tradition (See “John Calvin on the Magnificat” and “The Song of Simeon in the Reformed Tradition”). In this article I want to highlight the significance of the Ten Commandments in the Reformed tradition that finds its root in Calvin’s work in reforming the church. In his very first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in 1536, Calvin, following the standard structure of catechetical material, discussed and explained the meaning of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, and Christian life. It is important to notice that Calvin placed the discussion of the Ten Commandments in the first chapter of the 1536 edition of the Institutes. Ford Lewis Battles, in his introduction to the English translation of Calvin’s 1536 Institutes, suggests that this little book of six chapters was Calvin’s attempt at providing catechetical material for his readers (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1975, p. xxxviii). (It is also noteworthy that in this edition, Calvin’s explanation of the Ten Commandments comes right after what became one of his most famous lines: that “all wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.”) Placing the discussion of the Ten Commandments so early in the book indicates that Calvin considered the knowledge and therefore the keeping of the Ten Commandments of utmost importance for all Christians.

A Worker’s Prayer on the Ten Commandments

Holy God, help us to honor you as Creator and Lord of this universe by putting you first in all things and loving you above all else. Help us not to put our work, our paycheck, or our self-importance above you. May our love and honor be evident in how we speak to you and about you, with neither undue fear nor meaningless expressions. 

Eternal God, Creator of time, we thank you for the gift of work and the gift of rest. May we recognize that as Lord you have all things in your hands and that our labors can wait as we rest in you. May we take time to delight in you and in all that you have created, and in so doing may we draw closer to you. 

God of order, you have seen fit to place people over us. Help us to honor them with respectful attitudes and to follow their directions and policies for the good of all. May we work for the common good by caring for all of life, ensuring the safety of our coworkers and doing what we can to mitigate our impact on creation now and for the generations to come. 

Lord, may our places of work be places not only of physical safety, but of emotional and psychological safety so that all may flourish. Forgive us for having participated in actions or laughed at jokes that diminished another person or group in some way. Forgive us for not defending a colleague or working to create a safe and equitable work environment. 

Help us  to respect not only our coworkers, but also the things that belong to them. Forgive us for the times we took or misused what wasn’t ours, for the times we didn’t value another’s possessions. Lord, we recognize that acts of stealing can include taking what we feel is ours or simply fudging a number or two. We know that such acts show that we don’t trust you as our provider, so not only do they dishonor others, but they dishonor you. 

May we also show respect through our speech. Guard our tongues so that we do not participate in gossip or in any way harm another’s reputation. When difficult words need to be spoken, may we do so without malicious intent, speaking truth with love. When we receive such words ourselves, may we not react with defensive anger. May all our interactions be marked by honesty, truth, and grace. 

God, you are our Lord, our Savior, and our provider. Help us to be satisfied with and grateful for all your blessings. It is so hard not to want more: not to desire the job, the salary, the life of another person. Help us to be not merely content, but filled with  gratitude and the knowledge that all we have is yours—so much so that we are willing to share with others. In so doing, all people will be blessed and your name glorified. 

We dedicate our work and our rest to you. May you be honored through them. Amen. 

—Joyce Borger © 2024 Reformed Worship, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. Used by permission.


In the later development of the Reformed church in Geneva, singing the Ten Commandments in metrical form continued, and even in Calvin’s lifetime there were a few different versions. The Ten Commandments and the Song of Simeon were the only two canticles outside of the 150 metrical psalms that were included in the 1562 edition of The Genevan Psalter published by Clement Marot and Theodore Beza (Les Pseaumes mis en rime françoise, 1562, p. 493–94). The melody and versification of this canticle are different from those of the 1542 edition. The melody of the 1562 versification of the Ten Commandments was adopted by Philip Van Marnix when he translated the psalms and canticles into Dutch and published in Antwerp in 1580 (Het Boeck der psalmen Davids, uit de Hebreische spraecke in Nederduytschen dichte, 1580, p. Bb 6 verso–Bb 8 recto). Thus the Reformed church in the Netherlands likely adopted the tradition of singing the Ten Commandments toward the end of the sixteenth century, given that it was included in their repertoire.

The tradition of singing the Ten Commandments and the metrical psalms was brought by the Dutch when they introduced Reformed Protestantism to the East Indies in the early seventeenth century as they colonized Asia to get the spices that were then top commodities in Europe. The Dutch ministers who sailed to the region transplanted Reformed theology and church practices and translated the Bible, catechism books, the psalms, and the canticles into Malay, a lingua franca of the people in the region. Much of what was the Dutch East Indies later became the country of Indonesia. That’s how I became the beneficiary of the Reformed faith and tradition. It is interesting to note that in the earliest Malay translations of the metrical psalms and canticles, the versification of the Ten Commandments was always placed first, signaling the significance of singing the Ten Commandments in the earliest history of the Reformed tradition in the East Indies.

Today I no longer experience reciting the Ten Commandments or singing the canticles at worship services in either North America or Asia. I am thankful that most churches in Asia still recite the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday. But I miss the recitation of the Ten Commandments as a part of the church’s liturgy. I understand that a weekly recitation or singing of the same canticle or hymn could quickly become boring for a congregation. But I believe that when it fits in the liturgy or during special services it is good for the church to sing the Ten Commandments. In the hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts, “The Lord Is God, the One and True God” Meeter, LUYH 711 is a modern versification of the Ten Commandments. The melody is one that the church in Geneva has used since 1547, and it was published in the 1562 edition of The Genevan Psalter. I encourage churches to take a deeper look at this hymn and use it in their worship services, particularly during Ordinary Time. Consider following the liturgy of the 1545 church in Strasbourg and using this hymn as a song of response to the assurance of pardon to remind the congregation that after we receive God’s forgiveness of our sins we are called to keep God’s law. 

Whether you sing a song, hear the commandments read, or read them as a litany, don’t underestimate their formative power and neglect to regularly include them in your worship.

Dr. Yudha Thianto is the P. J. Zondervan Chair and professor of history of Christianity and Reformed theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. Originally from Indonesia, he is currently researching the history of psalm singing in the Reformed tradition that traveled from Calvin’s Geneva through the Dutch Reformed Church to the East Indies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Reformed Worship 152 © June 2024, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.