Misusing the law of God  

Posted by Denis Haack

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).

This entry was posted at Thursday, June 02, 2011 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Excellent and thought-provoking, this essay addresses an issue I have been wrestling with this week. Thanks very much for posting it.

June 4, 2011 at 9:42 AM

i'm definitely not surprised when those who don't follow christ, don't follow his teachings or laws. the problem for me has always been though, how to react to this? should i be speaking against this lifestyle or action acted out by a good friend? is that too, putting the 'cart before the horse' as this article suggests? can i recommend something like remaining with their partner, as something superficially good to do, while their foundational view of relationships and marriage is entirely different? is there really something in pretending to be something you're not, as CS Lewis suggests? when the people ask John what to do, he instructs them to good actions 'man with two tunics should share with him who has none' and tells groups like soldiers not to extort money. i would imagine many had the same opinion or experience of their 'religion' as something quasi legalistic and culturally ingrained as many in the US do, yet the command here seems to affirm this with still more rules or acts we should be doing, rather than imploring the people to something i would see as more relational such as repentance or prayer. perhaps then somehow whitewash on a tomb permeates deeper than we think?

June 5, 2011 at 3:53 PM

I think that Luke makes an important point, and one that I don't have a full response to, but I would like to add a thought. Bear in mind that I grew up in the church. During a period in my life of more or less serious rebellion, a close friend with a much better understanding of what it means to have a relationship with God asked me a very simple question. He knew that I understood that my behavior was, Biblically-speaking, wrong--in this sense I may be a bit off Luke's point--but rather than to remind me off certain commandments he asked me if I was happy...really happy.

He wasn't saying, "I just want you to be happy", and he wasn't saying "You can't be happy this way." He had relational credibility to ask me how I felt in a deep and serious way. That relational credibility is the key to the problem Luke raises. People with no emotional purchase on their audience can't evoke a response with a question like "are you happy?" Only friends who demonstrably love you can do that. The Ten Commandments can more or less help everyone to be more aware of their sin, but they do not help them understand what that sin means and they do not help them escape the consequences of that sin. Only relationship does that. Relationship with God in adopted Sonship through Christ does that. Relationship with one of those adopted Sons is what we have personally to offer the world while we are here. To close friends with thorny issues, we don't pretend to be "something that we are not." Rather we stand ready to say, as the great Theologian Spock once said, "I have been, and always shall be, your friend."

June 6, 2011 at 9:33 AM

I really appreciate these discussions. Especially as I continue to work out my faith. I've been pondering this post and appreciate the comments already posted.
I agree, and am grateful I'd had a conversation similar to this many years ago. What it does, or did, is put the focus on me. I don't mean that in a self centered way, but in a way that asks if I am following God's commands. In addition to not being surprised when those who don't follow Christ break His commands, I am not surprised when those who do follow Christ break His commands. None of us has arrived. We are all being refined daily.
God's laws are not set out, in my understanding, as something we strive to achieve, they are a guideline that we can use to perhaps gauge our journey. I'm sure I've left that open to a non-biblical interpretation, that is not my intention. I just believe we are meant to work out our own faith, in community. It is by seeking the Lord in our own lives that will cause others to question their own standing; not by telling them how to live.
I don't believe we are to tell people right and wrong, we are to live it. I think, for the most part it is not our job to react to people's choices, but to just love them. If someone asks, specifically what we think, we can point them to the gospel, with, as Kurt says, the assurance that we are a friend. But that has to be earned. The right to speak into people's lives is a delicate thing, and far too many Christians are far more concerned that others come in line with the law, while neglecting their own sin nature. (And just one believer doing that, just me doing that is one too many.)
Somewhere in this dialogue, I would think the Scripture about taking the plank out of our own eye should come up. There, I brought it up.

June 6, 2011 at 12:54 PM

You are welcome. Enns is thought-provoking.

June 6, 2011 at 4:05 PM

You raise such an excellent question. So much, it seems to me, hangs on how we respond to it.

My conviction is that it is presumptuous of us to do more than answer the question we are being asked, or to meet the person honestly where they are in their pilgrimage. Presumptuous because life is always more richly convoluted than we can know, and we simply don't know all that God is doing in someone's heart and mind.

If someone asks me, I would say, Yes, faithfulness is an admirable trait while unfaithfulness is destructive in relationships. It seems to me that this is true regardless of the relationship we are discussing, and as a Christian I am bound to love and serve the truth. It also seems to me that it is Spirit's job to convict the world of sin, and that to think he needs my help to accomplish it properly is another form of presumption.

The distinction the Bible makes in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 seems to me to be both clear and unambiguous. Sadly, Christians today tend to do precisely the opposite.

June 6, 2011 at 4:15 PM

Your example gets at the truth that is explained in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. A sister or brother who loves us enough to confront us is a precious and rare gift of grace. The Christian that goes around telling non-Christians how to live is living in a way that is distinctly unlike Christ.

We should probably do more to think creatively how to ask sensitive questions as your friend did. The longer I've lived the more I've come to realize that asking good questions is not automatic, but a hard-won skill.
Thanks for contributing,

June 6, 2011 at 4:21 PM

I am always pleased when I see your name appear in these discussions!

You make a key point when you say the law is primarily to be lived, so that people can be drawn to the beauty of living according to God's word. It is what drew so many people to Christ in his ministry--the fabled "multitudes" mentioned in the Gospels.

And your comment about the splinter/plank in the eye--there is an article in Critique 2011:4 on precisely this--how we can ask sensitive questions to one another, while being aware that often the people most eager to remove our splinter has a plank in their eye. As I point out in my article, Jesus called them "swine."

June 6, 2011 at 4:27 PM

I am aligning with Luke--we need to meet people where they ARE foundationally, not where we think they should be. If we are holding their "morality" (legally or simply behaviorally) up to a standard that doesn't have the same basis as ours, then how can we have a relationship with them that is not (perceived or actually) judgemental? That is no relationship, and any real discussion is over.

I THINK this falls under the same trap as Christians trying to legislate morality. Anyone out there have an opinion on how to apply Pete's views (which I share)to the slippery slope of legalizing same-sex marriage, and the debates that surround it, often in the name of Christianity?

June 7, 2011 at 2:35 PM

Thanks so much for joining the conversation. I agree with you about the danger of being judgmental, and how that is so destructive to relationships. Some of us were raised hearing that if we saw someone doing something that was wrong, it was wrong of us to remain silent about it. When people responded negatively we were told that righteous people should expect to be disliked. A wicked distortion of the truth.

The question about the debate over same-sex marriage is a vexed one. (When you mentioned "Pete" it took me a moment to think who were referring to--then I realized you know Peter Enns.) Anyway, there seems to be three answers being proposed.

One, the conservative position which is a political ideology (idolatry) with a thin veneer of religiosity to make it appear Judeo-Christian. A dead end in my view.

Two, some argue that this debate is not a matter of God's law but is rooted instead in creation and natural law, both of which, proponents claim, conclude against same-sex marriage. Touchstone magazine, for example, seems to take this position.

Three, that this conclusion from natural law is not fully compelling except to those whose views are informed by God's law, and so in a pluralistic culture no minority has the right to impose their view of marriage. Further, the church does not need the state to affirm its definition of marriage, nor is it threatened if the state holds a less than biblical view. This is by and large the position argued with clarity and compassion by Misty Irons (http://www.moremusingson.blogspot.com/).

What is troubling to me is that in the church One is so powerful, and Two is so certain that it is the only possible option that Three never gets a hearing.

Say hey to Margentina, if you ever see her again.

June 9, 2011 at 2:04 PM

Denis--"Three" is the most thought-provoking and I am intrigued as to how it applies way beyond outside of same-sex marriage.

Anytime we can say, and stand behind, "...the church does not need the state to affirm its definition of (fill in blank), nor is it threatened if the state holds a less than biblical view...", I am with ya. But I have more thinking to do.

Thanks for dragging me in.

June 13, 2011 at 3:41 PM

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