The Ten Commandments

So, what’s the deal with the Ten Commandments (and the Law of Moses in general)?

What we’ve been taught to think, is that they were given as a set of rules which God expected humans to obey in order to live righteously and to 'stay on God’s good side’. Whether, with the institution of the New Covenant, we’re still supposed to obey them is a knotty problem which has caused a good deal of argument. Effectively:

Some hold to the view that the New Covenant sort of ‘supplements’ the old, and that we still have to obey all the laws or we won’t be ‘saved’ (but God has given us the Holy Spirit to give us the strength to do so?).

Others hold that the New Covenant entirely replaces the Old; and that, therefore, we are not bound to obey them, because we gain our righteousness from Christ’s death on the cross. The Apostle Paul seems to be in this camp - he makes it quite clear that the Mosaic Law never applied to Gentiles before, and so it absolutely couldn’t now.

Paul supported this idea by pointing out that the Gentiles were being filled with the Holy Spirit when they first believed in Christ, not after they had become Torah observant:

I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?Galatians 3:2-5

And later reinforces this:

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Galatians 5:4-6

There are probably more nuanced versions of those, but I think they are, basically, the two main positions... Let’s not split hairs on the details if I’ve got something a bit wrong - okay?

Personally speaking, I’m very much more in the second camp than the first. It strikes me that, if we’re going to have a New Covenant with God, it actually needs to be new - not a rehash of the Old Covenant, tuned up and with go-faster stripes.

If we have to obey the Law, as the Jews had to, then I posit that it’s not been a huge success as a way of keeping us on God’s good side. A man with one finger could count the number of people throughout history who have managed to obey all ten of the Commandments, in spirit as well as letter.

But then, if we don’t have to obey the Law, why do we have it at all, other than as a sort of ‘left over’ from the Old Covenant? And if God commanded it, isn’t it a bit risky to just abandon it? And Jesus did say:

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Matthew 5:18

But look at those words carefully. We have to bear in mind the end of the sentence ‘…until everything is accomplished.’ That begs a question - what’s everything and how is it accomplished? I suspect it’s referring to the cross, and the everything which Jesus accomplished there… In which case, the Law of Moses didn’t have long to wait until it passed away!

We also need to remember that ‘heaven and earth’ doesn’t mean ‘creation’ in this context - it’s a euphemism for the Jewish Temple… And, of course, we know what happened to that. Firstly, the curtain of the temple got torn in two when Jesus died - signifying that God no longer dwelt there; secondly, that the Romans completely trashed the temple in AD70. So the law, at the latest, held sway until AD70 - if, in fact, it didn't cease to be authoritative when the curtain of the Temple was torn.

I suggest that the Law exists as a sort of mirror to hold up and see just how grubby and despicable we are, when we try to live ‘independently’: whether or not we try to obey it, we look pretty bad. Trying to obey it doesn’t work - we can’t do it - I defy you to try; then tell me how long you managed it! Trying to obey it is actually to continue in disobedience, in independence - in effect saying ‘I’m as good as God, I can do this on my own.’

There is no grace or mercy in rules. Make one mistake and you’re bust; you’ve had it. But Jesus said:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. Matthew 5:17

By fulfilling the Law, Jesus freed us from it. Even if, the law doesn’t, ever, pass away Jesus obeyed it, all of it, perfectly. The word used here, πληρῶσαι (plerosai) means to accomplish, or to complete, as much as to fulfil. That is how he ‘fulfilled’ it. Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection gives humanity a completely fresh start. Because Jesus was, in effect, a ‘second Adam’, being obedient where the first Adam was disobedient, everything about humanity and the world is ‘reset’ - there is nothing for us to do, no law we need to obey, because He makes us righteous.

And this is about the point at which the adherents of the idea that we still have to obey the Mosaic Law above will accuse me of peddling ‘cheap grace’.

Allow me to let you into a little secret:

it isn’t cheap grace...

It’s free grace!!

To insist that we still have to obey the Law, so that it isn’t ‘cheap grace’, is actually to say that Jesus’ incarnation and death on the cross was not sufficient, not a complete solution, and that there is still work to be done to earn our salvation. Take that to its logical conclusion, and Jesus’ death was pointless; it achieved nothing because we still have to work to earn our salvation. It is only by grace being an entirely free gift, with no strings attached, that His life, death and defeat of death in resurrection acquire their true meaning.

It’s only if grace is a free gift that we are set free. Free from the consequences sin, and free from the strictures of the Law.

So, am I saying that we don’t have to obey the Law?

Yes.

Exactly.

Our salvation; our righteousness; the status of our relationship with God does not depend on whether we obey the Law.

We like the Law because it gives us some sense of control over our own destiny - even if that sense is false. Trying to live by it gives us a sense of moral superiority over those who aren’t, and it allows us to pass judgement on them (even though we’re explicitly told not to judge!). It gives us a sense of certainty where there would otherwise be, perhaps, a lot of uncertainty.

But, it’s a form of rebellion; it’s actually sinful!

Why?

It’s sinful because we’re relying on ourselves rather than trusting God; we’re going our own way; we’re judging others; etc... By doing so, we’re disobeying the very Law we say we’re trying to obey!!

As I say frequently:

God is love. 1 John 4:16

It’s uncomfortable. We don’t like free gifts; we don’t like feeling as though we owe people; we’d rather work it (our salvation) out for ourselves, than to be ‘indebted’ to anyone - even God.

But God is love. And salvation, as wrought in the wonderful plan which is the New Covenant, is an example of His love, his generosity, his sheer largesse towards those whom He loves. (And let me let you into another little secret - ‘those whom He loves’ includes absolutely everyone - whether we like it or not there are no exceptions: there is no-one whom God does not love.)

The very most we have to do (and I’m not even sure we have to do that) is accept the gift for what it is. Surrender to His love. Hold up our hands and say ‘I can’t do this; over to you God.’

And then, once we surrender everything, and I do mean everything, to Him, we become free. Free from guilt, free from the Law and trying to obey it, free to live, free to love. And, miraculously, at that point we can, once we truly let Him in, begin to learn to live as He desires; to live in the way which is bestbothfor us and for everyone around us.

And then we truly begin to change; to become more Christlike. And we begin to see the promise of those Commandments being fulfilled... Of course, the promise won’t be finally, fully, realised in this life, but we’re on the journey.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022