I had a dream last night. It was more than a dream, actually: it was the sudden recollection of a distant and repressed memory from my infancy. Actually, it was from even before my infancy. Even before I was born somehow my father and I communicated with with each other He offered to make me exist and to love me as his son on the condition that I agreed to love and obey him. After I agreed to meet the conditions of that covenant, then he agreed to conceive me and raise me from then on as his child.
OK, I lied. I didn’t have that dream. And such a dream could never be a repressed memory. It would really be a weird nightmare. Parental love is not based on a contract. It is not based on on some previous agreement. There is no time to make such an agreement. From the moment a person is conceived, that person is in a relationship with his parents. The child may fail to continue in that relationship the right way. But when that happens, it is not because the child failed to enter into a covenant with his parents, but rather because he broke the covenant already established. He is not an autonomous individual. He’s just a runaway.
Likewise, God didn’t create Adam and then make an arrangement whereby Adam was blessed by God. On the contrary, God’s covenant relationship with Adam existed from the moment Adam first existed. Adam didn’t have to love and obey in order to be God’s son, he had to love and obey God because was God’s son. And he was God’s son because of an act of God’s will, not his own. True, he could respond to God’s love and grace in making and adopting him, but he could never initiate God’s love and grace. God took the initiative.
Now this seems rather obvious, but there is something in human nature which rebels against it. We don’t like to think of ourselves as utterly dependent, and subject to certain moral obligations as an essential part of our identity. We would rather be self-existent autonomous beings under no obligations except those we impose upon ourselves. This desire manifests itself in our in our intellectual life. Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, claimed that each human person pre-existed there own body and life history. Each of us existed as a pure mind with perfect knowledge, so that no experience in this world really taught us anything new or actually changed us. Rather, they simply reminded us of what we ultimately already knew.
This fantasy of autonomy also manifests itself in the way our society does not understand how to explain the rights of a child. Abortion, and all sorts of other evils, comes down to the idea that a person is an autonomous being with no obligations other than the ones he or she voluntarily takes on.
Now what does all this have to do with the Ten Commandments? Quite simply this: Time and time again, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, have been treated as if they were, at least hypothetically, a way of earning salvation—of initiating a relationship with God. But there is no way that such an interpretation can be made to fit the facts. On the contrary, the first three verses of Exodus 20, in the context of Exodus as a whole, make it clear that the Israelites are not supposed to obey God in order to be saved, but because they are saved.
Just to make my point clear, let me read you again the first three verses of Exodus chapter 20:
Then God spoke all these words, saying,
You shall have no other gods before Me,
Then I will be the Lord your God,
and I will bring you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.
Now with a couple of minor modifications, those are the first three verses of chapter 20 of the Exodus. But the message has now been completely perverted because I switched the order of verses 2 and 3. Instead of having deliverance precede the command, I reversed it and made the command precede the deliverance. But that gives us an entirely different picture. And it is inaccurate. God didn’t hand out the Law in Egypt and tell the Israelites to obey it in order to be delivered from Pharaoh’s kingdom. Exactly the opposite. God first unilaterally saved Israel and then gave Israel the law. The Law is not about initiating or earning a relationship. The Law is about thanking, trusting, and continuing in a relationship which you could never hope to initiate, earn, or in any way, deserve.
You see, our inherent drive to imagine ourselves autonomous gets tangled up with an assumption that people were saved in the Old Testament by their works while in the New Testament we are saved by God’s grace through faith. But that is ridiculous. The Apostle Paul’s argument throughout his letters is that we are saved by faith now because that is the only way anyone was ever saved at any time. Abraham and David were saved by faith. According to the author of Hebrews, Moses was saved by faith. There is nothing new about being saved by grace through faith. There is one way of salvation, one relationship with God, or as theologians like to say, one covenant of grace throught history both before and after Jesus.
Let me give you an example of how we can misunderstand God’s revelation through Moses. Turn with me to Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 15ff, where we hear Moses conclude his farewell sermon to the Israelites:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You shall not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
Now, this is usually read as if it was all about earning or deserving salvation. Like in my dream where I have a conversation with my father before he conceived me, God is here offering the people of Israel life on the condition of obedience.
But think through what that scenario would mean. The Israelites are listening to Moses. There hearts are pumping blood to their ears and brains so that they can hear and understand him. Their lungs are breathing oxygen so that their blood has something to give to their brains and ears. They have already been given life. They are not in some sort of third status that is neither life nor death because there is no third alternative. They are being told to keep choosing life as people who have already been given life. In fact, Paul sites this passage from Deuteronomy in Romans 10 as a reference to the gospel. Moses is giving the people the gospel.
You see the message of the Ten Commandments is not, do this to earn my love. The prologue makes it very clear. The message of the Ten Commandments is, I am God. I have saved you. Be loyal to me.
Consider something else Moses said in Deuteronomy:
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face. Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them. Then it shall come about, because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you His covenant and His lovingkindness which He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall be no male or female barren among you or among your cattle. And the Lord will remove from you all sickness; and He will not put on you any of the harmful diseases of Egypt which you have known, but He will lay them on all who hate you. And you shall consume all the peoples whom the Lord your God will deliver to you; your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.
I am God. I have saved you. Be loyal to me. That’s the message of the Ten Commandments. That’s the message of Deuteronomy 7.6-16. Now let’s consider something from a gospel:
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you. By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
Whether it’s Moses or Jesus, the message is the same. I am God. I have saved you. Be loyal to me. And I should point out, the same basic message was given to Adam and Eve. They hadn’t sinned so they didn’t need to be saved in that sense. But still, the message had the same structure. I am God. I have created you and exalted you over all things. Be loyal to me. Granted, for Adam and Eve, loyalty entailed perfect obedience as well as faith, but that was because they were sinless. If they remained in covenant they would continue to not sin. God’s covenant with them was a relationship of love unilaterally initiated by God. It was not a labor contract.
Likewise, the Ten Commandments were never given as a contract. They were never given, even hypothetically, as a way for men and women to earn or merit eternal life. They were given as a means to grow in grace and faith. They were given to sinners whom God had freely chosen to forgive and adopt as his own children.
Now I should mention that there are passages in Paul which say pretty negative things about the Law. But Paul is replying, in these passages, to people who think the Mosaic Law is complete apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. Yes, without Christ the Law can only condemn. Yes, without Christ, one must change the Law beyond recognition and make it into either a way of earning salvation or a reason for boasting in one’s national heritage. But that is not what the Law was intended for. The Ten Commandments presuppose grace and salvation. Jesus is God. He has chosen us and delivered us. We must be loyal to him.
Bear in mind, that it is not only the Old Testament Law which accuses and condemns. Some theologians historically, have made a big deal out of the fact that when the Law was given at Sinai, it was given in thunder and lightning and fire so that everyone was fearful. The gospel, they said, contrasts with the Law in that it is all assurance and promise of good will. I think something is missing from this sort of assessment. When the Apostle John saw the risen savior Jesus Christ, he was struck down like a dead man. When Saul of Tarsus met Jesus, he was thrown to the ground and blinded by the blaze of Jesus’ glory. The Mount of Transfiguation is quite comparable to Mount Sinai.
The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that his preaching of the gospel is the
fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.
And consider Hebrews 10.28-29
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?
So, contrary to many popular interpretations floating around today, in the presence of unbelief, the gospel is even more condemning than the Old Testament law. Why? Because the grace of God is revealed even more clearly. It’s true that God is holy. It’s true that every sin deserves his wrath. But that’s barely half the story. God isn’t just holy, he is loving, patient, and forgiving. And in the face of that loving, patient, and forgiving God, men and women continue in unbelief and rebellion. Like Eve we convince ourselves that God’s commands are simply a way he’s keeping us down. That’s what condemns us all the more. And that’s why the Gospel can be even more condemning than anything written in the Old Testament.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating. Imagine a husband in some way sinning against his wife so that it costs her. Let’s say that I put us deeply in debt by gambling so that my wife Jennifer and the children have to bear the financial consequences of my sin. And let’s say that Jennifer, on her own initiative, arranges to get a job which, even despite childcare, will pay off those debts. So she comes to me and says, “Mark, I forgive you. And I have arranged it so that I can pay off your debt.”
Now what should I do, in response to that word of pardon and promise? Obviously, I should repent of what I have done. I should repent, true, simply because I have sinned against my wife. But all the more, if I have one living nerve left in my seared heart, I should repent becaus my wife loves me and has, at great cost to herself, covered over my sin.
But what would I do, if I followed in the way of human nature? Editing out the swear words, I would probably say, “Who are you to forgive me.” To a hardened heart, words of grace are even more condemning than words of command.
The upshot is that much of the claims made about the necessity of hearing the law before hearing the Gospel aren’t all that cogent. It is true that we need to know what sin is, and that can be taught to us through the law both before and after we enter the kingdom. But the gospel itself contains a revelation of our sinfulness.
Back before seminary when I was working in a bookstore, I remember a co-worker who for some reason had to attend a Roman Catholic service. When she came back, she spoke bitterly of how ridiculous the liturgy was because of some of the words that had been said. The made her feel guilty and condemned. Why. Did she hear the commandments from Sinai? No. She heard about the bitter sufferings and death to which our Lord Jesus Christ submitted himself because of our sins. That is what she hated. How could anyone claim that anything she had done had sent a man into torture for her sake.
Of course, it would be fine to use the ten commandments in the liturgy as well. But not simply because they are commands. Rather, because they reveal the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who has, more than Moses, brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, out of the domain of darkness, out of the house of sin. We are learning how to walk in the light as he is in the light. God has initiated a relationship with us. And he is teaching us how to continue in it because he loves us.
If we truly believe that God loves us then the prospect of obeying the commands should not seem burdensome. Think of an awkward and mediocre-looking young man at a dance. And a beautiful woman grabs his hand and says, “Dance with me!” That’s what it should feel like to know that God, the lover of your soul, wants to teach you the steps for walking with him.
Jesus is God. Jesus has saved us. Let us be loyal to him. Let us trust him. The Ten Commandments are an important summary statement of how to trust God. And they presuppose grace. We are to obey God not in order to become his children, but because he has made us his children. After all, he is about to feed us at his table, just like any loving parent does for his children. The Ten Commandments aren’t things we do to come to the Lord’s Supper. No, we participate in the Lord’s Supper in order to obey the Ten Commandments. God nourishes us that we might serve him.
May God make us truly grateful then, that in his power we might live according to his word.