The Ten Commandments – A Law of Grace?

(This is part 2 of a series on the Ten Commandments.)

Perhaps the most common mistake made when teaching the ten commandments (1oC) is to start with the first commandment. This is a misstep because it treats the 10C as if the Israelites just found them carved on a rock in the desert. It rips them from their locus in the biblical story. For this reason, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) admonishes us to pay attention to the preface of the 10C, the words that God spoke before he started listing commands:

Q. 101. What is the preface to the Ten Commandments?
A. The preface to the Ten Commandments is contained in these words, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments.

The preface draws our attention to who God is, and who is he to those who receive the 10C? First, he is their covenant God. In the most general sense, a covenant is simply a contractual agreement. But this covenant harks back to the covenant God made with Abraham, in which he pledged, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7-8).

In the covenant, God promises to us not simply blessings or good fortune, but himself. Humans could never scrounge up some sort of leverage to demand God, but he offers Himself freely. What does he want in return? Us. In the preface, then, we see that the 10C is less like a contract and more like marriage vows. These vows describe what the relationship ideally looks like, when each partner lives for the other. Refusing to live by the 10C is, therefore, more than just rule-breaking; it is rejecting intimacy with God.

The second way God reveals himself to us is as our redeemer God. At the time the 10C were given, He had brought the Israelites out of a land of slavery and was leading them toward a promised land of freedom and prosperity. By this act God foreshadowed his ultimate plan of redemption (the very word “redeem” meaning to buy out of slavery). Jesus was sacrificed as a Passover Lamb for sins, and in his resurrection he trampled over all our enemies — sin, Satan, and death — in order to bring us to God.

The law is for people who are slaves no more. More specifically, it is to prevent free people from falling back into the slavery from which they were delivered. Having lived in slavery since birth, we don’t immediately know how to live like free people once we become free. We tend to revert to our familiar slavery. Sin is a merciless taskmaster, and even believers can fall under its whip again if they so choose (Rom. 6:16), but God is ever rescuing them. God’s law does not shackle; it breaks shackles. The 10C, then, are a guidebook for free people, a manifesto of the good life.

However we preface the law, though, it does seem to be in tension with grace. There are numerous passages in the New Testament about the weakness of the law or the bondage of the law or the inferiority of the law. What are we to make of them? Here is Wilhelm Niesel’s paraphrase of Calvin’s teaching on this issue:

If in the New Testament Paul at times speaks of the law in itself, that is only because he wishes to expose the error of those who imagine that man can acquire righteousness by fulfilling the works of the law. But in point of fact the law does not stand thus as an isolated phenomenon. It is not simply a collection of commands about how to live well, but is included in the covenant of grace which God founded.

The tension arises precisely when people ignore the preface and treat the law as something it is not. If they think of it as their entry point into relationship with God or as a means by which they can free themselves from slavery, then it becomes twisted. In this case, it is absolutely opposed to the gospel. In one sense, the law was never meant for us to fulfill. Niesel invokes Calvin on this point as well:

In [Christ] the law has completed its function of judging and punishing, and this has effected the final fulfillment of the law and of the will of God which it represents. For our sakes, and in the sight of God, Jesus Christ walked in the way prescribed by the law; and now we must allow the law to invite us simply to follow in His footsteps.

If we see the law as the depiction of our relationship with God, as the guide to living the free life, as the body of requirements that Christ fulfilled, we can rejoice in it. We can obey it, and when we fail, Christ obeyed it for us.

Psalm 119:18 — Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.

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Published in: on October 8, 2010 at 8:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Rules for Using the Ten Commandments

(This is Part 1 of a series on the Ten Commandments)

The Ten Commandments are perhaps viewed by many as Bible 101, something everybody knows about Judaism and Christianity. Yet, even Christians who have memorized them and would assent to them may feel uncertain about their exact content, scope, or purpose in the Christian life. Though they seem simple at first, the Ten Commandments often produce confusion or frustration in those who attempt to take them seriously. So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting pieces of the one of the best expositions of the 10C, the Westminster Larger Catechism, along with some commentary.

The first piece I’m posting gets at the sheer depth and comprehensiveness of the commandments. It shatters a superficial reading of them which would make them refer only to big sins or even external actions.

Question 99: What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments?

Answer: For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed:

1. That the law is perfect, and bindeth every one to full conformity in the whole man unto the righteousness thereof, and unto entireobedience forever; so as to require the utmost perfection of every duty, and to forbid the least degree of every sin.
2. That it is spiritual, and so reacheth the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul; as well as words, works, and gestures.
3. That one and the same thing, in divers respects, is required or forbidden in several commandments.
4. That as, where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included.
5. 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.
6. That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.
7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.
8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.

If the gravity of the commands weighs on you, if they feel almost crushing in the severity of their commands, that’s how it’s supposed to feel! The commandments are designed to show us our inadequacy, our frailty, our moral failing. More on that in the posts to come.

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 8:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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