As Christians we believe God has not remained silent, but has spoken in what he has made (his created word), in the Bible (his written word), and in Christ (the incarnated word). When we read the Scriptures we cannot miss the fact that his revelation includes his law. The best summary of that law is contained in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21).
I have long believed that God’s law is badly misunderstood by the majority of Christians today. This misunderstanding skews their understanding of grace, causes them to function as if their works make them righteous even though they claim to believe the opposite, prompts them to be judgmental, and causes their witness before a watching world to get bogged down in law instead of being a celebration of grace.
So, when my friend Cal Burroughs (pastor, St Elmo Presbyterian, Chattanooga) mentioned this essay by theologian Peter Enns, I thought it might generate some comments. If the prose sounds a bit academic, it’s because this is from a commentary written by a scholar. Ignore that, and think about what Enns is saying—and I’d love to hear what you think about what he argues here.
Fully in keeping with the way in which commands are articulated in both the Old and New Testaments, we must confess that the Ten Commandments are not bare “guidelines” for how we should act, but are means by which we as God’s people come to understand God better. They are a reflection of him and since we in Christ are re-created in his image, we ought to honor and keep these laws. As Vern Poythress argues, “all the commandments reflect the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Rather than the “spiritualizing” the Ten Commandments or making them too abstract, such a Christological perspective is the proper starting point from which the church is to view them. Yet, in my view, fundamental misunderstandings surrounding the purpose of the Ten Commandments abound in our society, perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. I would like to mention two related misunderstandings.
(1) As difficult as it may be to accept, we must remember that the Ten Commandments are not primarily concerned with personal, private morality. To be sure, it is individuals who keep them, but God’s purpose of giving them and implementing them should never be reduced to a simple matter of individual righteousness. As we have seen, there is a corporate dimension involved when God’s people speak of the Ten Commandments. His law is to be followed not so that the individuals can show their worth before God, and certainly not so that they can either earn or secure their salvation, but so that God’s people can show the world the kind of God they worship. This God is not always friendly but can be demanding and uncompromising.
Too often, however, we use the Ten Commandments today as a basis by which to judge the “personal morality” of others. This is bad enough when we do this with respect to the church, but it is even worse when we judge those outside of the family of God. The sexual sins of politicians have been a regular theme in the news as I write this, and a number of Christian commentators remark that such activity is against God’s law and should therefore be punished. In fact, there is even a degree of surprise in their voices, as if it is “normal” for Americans to be ready, willing and able to keep the law. This is misguided. I am neither shocked nor offended when any public official—or anyone else, for that matter—who does not claim the name of Christ (or perhaps does so only nominally) breaks one of the Ten Commandments. Frankly, breaking those laws is the least of their worries.
We should never wonder when God’s law is broken by people who were never intended to keep it in the first place. Moreover, by chiding these individuals for doing so, are we not sending the wrong gospel message, that being right with God is primarily a matter of proper conduct? Are we not, contrary to the place of the law in both the Old and New Testaments, putting the cart before the horse? We are saying to them that God demands a high moral standard apart from the work of Christ, that proper behavior is what makes us right with God. But the opposite is true. Apart from being in Christ first we are incapable of good works that please God. Such legalistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-moral-bootstraps theology is only too natural for human beings, it is our nature to want to do it ourselves. Should we perpetuate such a thing?
Expecting unbelievers to keep God’s law, or even to respect it, blurs the sharp divide between those who are God’s people and those who are not. Even if they can keep the law in an external, superficial way, this is not to say that they do what really matters, which is to keep the law in a manner pleasing to God. To single out the Ten Commandments and set them up as a standard of conduct for unbelievers or American society in general indicates not only a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Ten Commandments, but of the good news itself. Christ died and rose to provide another way. We should do nothing to make that way obscure.
(2) This brings us to another example: the Ten Commandments in public schools. This is another hot-button issue that will quickly make you life-long enemies if you say the wrong things in the wrong company. At the risk of losing a friend or two, let me say that I do not think the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public schools. By this point it should go without saying that I feel strongly that they should be kept (although precisely how they should be kept is a matter of constant reflection). The point, however, is that they should be kept by the right people and for the right reasons. It is not really for me a matter of the “separation of church and state”—a wonderful ideal in its original intention, but one that has been distorted in our day—as much as a matter of the separation of those who are in Christ from those who are not.
What do we hope to accomplish by imposing God’s law on those who do not know him? To make better citizens? To make better-behaved children? Neither of these goals is wrong. In fact, they are important. They are not, however, the goal of the gospel, which is to change those who are not God’s people into those who are. Better people and citizens, these things are byproducts (again, important ones) of the spread of the gospel.
If I may put the matter somewhat differently, placing the Ten Commandments in public schools represents a misuse and misunderstanding of the purpose of these laws; it is, therefore, tantamount to promoting a false religion. It is not Judaism, and it certainly is not Christianity. It may be a “Judeo-Christian ethic”—a thoroughly non-biblical concept—but such an ethic has no life if it is presented as anything other than the gift of God for those already redeemed by grace. God’s laws are for his people. Those who do not know him are walking tombs. They do not need whitewashing but complete renovation, from the inside out. They do not need their moral gyroscopes pushed in the right direction, but the Spirit of the risen Christ breathed into them.
Source: The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000) pp. 431-433. Rembrandt “Raising of the Cross” (1633).
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