Written in Stone
The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis
Philip Graham Ryken
P&R Publishing, 2010, 240 pp. ISBN 978-1-59638-206-0
Ryken is the current president of Wheaton College and former senior minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The Ten Commandments are an expression of God’s eternal character and have binding force today. Their implications stretch much farther than we commonly imagine.
“People who are ignorant of God’s law never see their need for the gospel.” (Preface)
1. Written in Stone
Today’s cultural laws are based on moral relativism, the belief that we are free to make up our own rules based on our personal preferences. But our rules often conflict with God’s laws. When people have a low regard for God’s law, they have a low regard for God.
The Ten Commandments display the character of God. He could not have given us any different commandments because these are based on his character. This has many implications. “One is that when we break God’s law, we are making a direct assault on God himself.” Another is that the law is perpetually binding. It remains in force for all people in all places at all times. His standard has not changed any more than his character has changed.
There are several different kinds of law: the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial. The ceremonial law pertained to Israel’s worship and has been superseded by Christ. The civil or judicial laws governed Israel as a nation and they have expired because the church is not a state. But the moral law is a fixed, objective standard of righteousness. It is this law that is summarized in the Ten Commandments.
2. A Multi-Use Item
God’s law is a map, a muzzle, and a mirror. It teaches God’s people how to live for God’s glory. It restrains sin in society. It shows sinners their need of a Savior.
The Ten Commandments do not begin with the law, but with the gospel: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’” (Exod. 20:1-2). God reminded them of their salvation, their liberation, the great saving event of the Old Testament. The commandments follow the gospel of undeserved deliverance. Salvation has always come by grace and the law and the gospel work together in both testaments.
This law was for the people who had already been redeemed. It was not a form of bondage but a freedom charter. He set them free so they could live for him. And this is one of the most important uses of the law: to learn how to live for the glory of God.
The law is also to reveal to man his sin, his contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God. The law shows us these things so we will seek a Savior and to remind us to praise God for saving us.
“…the law is not very seeker-friendly. In fact, sometimes it makes people mad. However, preaching the law is absolutely essential for reaching the lost. It is only by hearing God’s law that sinners are convicted of their sin, and thus see their need for the gospel.” (38)
4. Interpreting God’s Law
Some think Jesus gave a new law (You have heard it said ‘You shall not murder…’ but I say that everyone who is angry with his brother is liable for judgment.) Jesus didn’t add to the law; he interpreted it. The first rule of interpretation is that the law must be understood in the context of the whole Bible.
The second rule is the inside/outside rule: The Ten Commandments are spiritual. They apply to the internal (our affections) as well as external. They demand inward integrity as well as outward conformity. “Man’s law binds the hands only, God’s law binds the heart.” (Old Puritan proverb.) (44)
The third rule is the two-sided rule: The Commandments are both positive and negative. “Where a sin is forbidden the corresponding duty is required. And where a duty is required, the corresponding sin is forbidden.” (45-6) There is a flip side to each one. “We may not dishonor God by abusing his name. However, by sheer force of logic, this command also requires us to use God’s name honorably and reverently.” (46)
The fourth rule is the rule of categories: “Each commandment stands for a whole category of sins. It governs not only the specific sin that is mentioned, but all the sins that lead up to it, and all the supposedly lesser sins of the same kind.” (47)
According to these principles, each commandment implies overwhelming demands. And breaking just one makes us guilty before God and subject to his wrath and curse. This is not legalistic thinking. It simply shows us what God requires, the extent of our sin, and our need for the Gospel.
4. The First Commandment: No Other Gods
This is the foundation. God alone is to receive glory. This commandment is based on who he is and what he has done. There is only one God. All others are frauds. When it comes to worshipping God, it’s all or nothing. He requires our total allegiance.
King Solomon was condemned for violating this commandment. His heart was gradually lured away. This happens to many Christians as well. In many cases we serve the same gods that Solomon served: money, sex, and power. The tests are: What do you love and what do you trust? Behind all the lesser gods is the god of self. Whom do we trust? We believe in ourselves.
To deny that Jesus is the only way is to say there are other gods. But it is not just our duty to worship God, it is our privilege.
5. The Second Commandment: The Right God, The Right Way
Whereas the first command deals with worshipping the right God, the second requires us to do so in the right way. No false gods. No false worship. Idols are things to serve as objects of worship. God is jealous. This not like an insecure, possessive human jealousy. “Rather, it is an intensely caring devotion to the objects of His love, like a mother’s jealous protection of her children….” He not only loves us, he wants us to love him and that means worshiping him in a way that is worthy of his honor. Idolatry creates a false image of God that is inadequate to his deity and unworthy of his majesty. Like the others, this commandment is also spiritual and applies to the heart. And in our hearts we tend to fashion God after our own image, reshaping him until He is under our control, and worshiping him the way we want him to be.
6. The Third Commandment: Name Above All Names
God’s name is much more than his name: it’s his identity, inseparable from his person, his entire reputation. It deserves as much reverence and respect as God himself. A literal translation of this command is, “You shall not lift up the name of the Lord your God for nothingness.” (87) God forbids the use of his name in a vain or empty way, carelessly, thoughtlessly, or flippantly—as if he didn’t matter very much or didn’t exist or that God himself is worthless. Misusing his name is a very great sin, a direct attack on his honor and glory. The positive side is that we are commanded to use his name only in a way that honors him. [I am very disturbed to hear many Christians—even in church—say without a thought, “Oh my God” (or on Facebook, omg.) If you challenge someone they may say, “Oh, I didn’t mean anything by it” -- demonstrating the point. Dlm]
7. The Fourth Commandment: Work and Leisure
The Sabbath is a day for God, his worship, mercy, and rest. It demands our whole person in the service of God, keeping it holy. It is a day for ceasing from work, a day for relaxation and recuperation, to step back and rediscover God’s grace and goodness. “When God explained why he sent his people into captivity, he often mentioned their failure to keep the Sabbath holy (see Jer. 17:19-27; Ezek, 20:12-13).” (109)
8. The Fifth Commandment: Respect for Authority
“The first four commandments teach us to love God, while the last six teach us to love our neighbor. Love for God must come first. We cannot truly love one another unless we love God.” (118) Loving our neighbor starts at home, the beginning of society. The heart of the fifth commandment is receiving the gift of life by respecting our parents in the faith. By extension, respect for family extends to respect for all with legitimate authority over us.
9. The Sixth Commandment: Live and Let Live
This commandment forbids the unlawful killing of a human being, murder. The goal is preservation of life. Life is precious because a human is made in God’s image. The entire media industry promotes the breaking of this commandment. We are called to protect life, loving our neighbor, showing kindness to strangers and mercy to our enemies.
10. The Seventh Commandment: The Joy of Sex
The primary purpose of this command is to protect marriage. It rules out every kind of sin that leads to adultery and everything that causes it. It forbids any sexual activity that violates the covenant of marriage. Period. Every act of sexual immorality is an offense against God. Lust is deadly. Most of us have a higher tolerance for the inward flaws, but they are just as fatal. Sexual sin is never isolated but always connected with the rest of life. Viewing pornography incites the lust for more and on the internet it is endless.
11. The Eighth Commandment: What’s Mine Is God’s
We break this commandment whenever we take advantage of anyone resulting in a loss for him. There are countless ways to steal. Stealing shows we don’t trust God’s provision and it robs God’s provision for someone else. It’s about more than stealing: it’s about stewardship. A steward manages someone else’s property. A godly attitude toward property says, “What’s mine is God’s; I’ll share it.”
“Good stewardship starts with meeting the needs of our families. Then it extends to the church and to the global work of the gospel. Finally, it reaches out to the poor in our own community and around the world.” (176)
We steal from God when we do not generously give back to him, when we do not give him the best of our time and talents, and when we break his law and thus ‘steal’ our obedience.
12. The Ninth Commandment: To Tell the Truth
Everyone condemns lying, yet everyone does it. We are accustomed to massaging the truth for personal advantage. In court, the words of a false witness can be fatal. There can be no justice without truth. God forbids every kind of falsehood, including half-truths, flatteries, fibs, omissions, deceptions, exaggerations, misinterpretations, misquotations, rumors, etc., anything that exchanges the truth for a lie. Our communication should be grounded in the character of God.
13. The Tenth Commandment: Being Content
In direct contradiction to our consumer culture, God warns us to be on guard against covetousness, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) It goes straight to the heart, requiring inward as well as outward obedience. We are not content; we crave, because of sinful desire. Coveting is wanting something that someone else has, something that is not rightfully ours. We have many healthy desires. “But like everything else about us, our desires are corrupted by sin. We often want the wrong thing, in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reason.” (203) Coveting is the source of many other sins. Much of our frustration comes from wanting things God has not given us and as long as our contentment is based on things in this world, we will be miserable. Contentment means wanting what God wants for us.
Epilogue: The End of the Law
“By the time he was finished giving his law…the people were trembling with fear; they were shaking in their sandals. … One thing the Israelites feared was the law itself. God had just given them his righteous requirements in the form of the Ten Commandments. They could see that God was demanding their total allegiance in every aspect of life. … They were frightened by the total demand of God’s law. The Israelites were also frightened by the threat of God’s judgment…. The people had come into the very presence of the great and formidable Judge of all sin. They were guilty sinners before a holy God, and they could sense that this was a life-threatening encounter.” (217)
“Many people claim that they want to have an unmediated experience of God. … People who make such demands really have no idea what they are asking, because anyone who has ever caught even the slightest glimpse of God’s true glory has been filled with fear. He is an awesome and all-powerful God whose holiness is a terror to sinners.” (218-19)
The Israelites needed—and we need—a mediator, someone who enters God’s presence on behalf of his people, to be their representative, to go where no one else dares to go.
Many think God will accept them because they generally play by the rules (even if they can’t name them). “But what we soon discover—provided we know what God’s law really requires—is how impossible it is for us to keep the Ten Commandments. We are sinners by nature, and thus we are unable to obey God in everything. And if there is one thing we learn from the Ten Commandments, it is that we are not able to keep them.”
“And this is how the law leads us to the gospel: It condemns us for our sins so that we start looking for some kind of legal remedy, and then we discover that God has provided one for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus can do what the law cannot do, and that is to save us….” (223) What the law can still do is teach us how to live. And Jesus teaches us and applies it to our hearts. “We obey, not to justify ourselves, but to show our gratitude to the Savior who justified us.” (225)
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