5 Questions about the Ten Commandments

Q: What is the relationship between law and grace?

A: Law and grace have come to be pitted against one another as enemies, when in fact, they are friends. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New have been placed in opposition, when in fact, they are one and the same. God does not change. His justice and compassion have always coexisted, and so have his law and his grace. Herein lies our forgetfulness. Rather than seeing the sin of lawlessness as the barrier to relationship with God, we have steadily grown to regard the law itself as the barrier. We have come to believe that rules prevent relationship.

So, is Christianity about rules, or is it about relationship? The Christian faith is absolutely about relationship. But while that faith is personal, it is also communal. We are saved into special relationship with God, and thereby into special relationship with other believers. Christianity is about relationship with God and others, and because this statement is true, Christianity is also unapologetically about rules, for rules show us how to live in those relationships. Rather than threaten relationship, rules enable it.

Q: How do we guard against legalism when doing God’s law?

A: Christians have been taught, with good reason, to fear legalism—attempting to earn favor through obedience to the law. Legalism is a terrible blight, as evidenced in the example of the Pharisees. But in our zeal to avoid legalism, we have at times forgotten the many places the beauty of the law is extolled for us, both in the Old Testament and the New. Blessed, says the psalmist, is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord.1 While legalism is a blight, lawfulness is a blessed virtue, as evidenced in the example of Christ.

We should love the law because we love Jesus, and because Jesus loved the law. Contrary to common belief, the Pharisees were not lovers of the law; they were lovers of self. This is why Jesus says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Legalism is external righteousness only, practiced to curry favor. Legalism is not love of the law, but is its own form of lawlessness, twisting the law for its own ends.

Q: How is the law meant to encourage us?

A: The Ten Words are encouraging words, meant to give us hope—hope that we will live rightly oriented to God and others, hope that we will grow in holiness.2They are not given to discourage but to delight. They are no less than words of life.

But take note: they are not words of life for everyone. For the unbeliever, obedience to the Ten Words can yield only the deadly fruit of legalism. As the author of Hebrews makes plain, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6). These words bring life only to those who have been joined to Christ through faith. Our relationship has been purchased by the perfect obedience of Christ to the law. The life of Jesus fulfills the prophetic words of Psalm 40:8: “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” He who delighted in the law of God offers it to those who trust in him, that they might delight in it, as well.

And so that they might please God. With faith, by the power of the Spirit, it is possible to please God.

Q: What is lawfulness?

A: Lawfulness is Christlikeness. To obey the law is to look like Jesus Christ. While legalism builds self-righteousness, lawfulness builds righteousness. Obedience to the law is the means of sanctification for the believer. We serve the risen Christ, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

There are good works to be done by the people of God, not out of dread to earn his favor, but out of delight because we already have it.

Q: What is true obedience?

A: Obedience that pleases God begins in the heart. Ten Words carved in stone at Sinai and powerless to save us, now carved on our hearts and powerful to transform us. The tablets given to Moses have long since crumbled to dust, but the beauty of their commands lives on from generation to generation in the hearts of God’s people. It singles us out as strangers in a strange land. We are nomads still, citizens of another place, passing through this present wilderness filled with longing for permanence, for a city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.3

Ten Words to put to death our sin. Ten Words to herald abundant life. Ten Words to steady and strengthen us on the narrow path that leads us home. In the New Jerusalem, the gates of our homecoming will never be closed. One day, we will enter those gates with thanksgiving. May it be said of us on that day that our meditative delight was in the law of the Lord. May it be said of us that in thought, word, and deed, we remembered to delight.

Notes:

  1. See Ps. 1.
  2. Rom. 15:4
  3. Heb. 11:10

This article is adapted from Ten Words to Live By: Delighting in and Doing What God Commands by Jen Wilkin.

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