Presbyterian Church of Victoria, 2004.
Quiz time. When was the last time you read a book on the ten commandments? Indeed, when was the last time you read the ten commandments? Better still, can you name all ten commandments?
I suspect that most people cannot name all ten, and that would include Christians as well. Given the very real importance of the ten commandments to believers, it is surprising that we are so ignorant of them. This little book (100 pages) seeks to correct that shortcoming.
Composed by a number of leading lights in the Presbyterian Church in Australia, this volume contains short but weighty chapters on each of the ten commandments, along with several introductory and concluding chapters.
The ten Presbyterian authors here all agree that the ten commandments are an important part of the Christian’s life, and all argue that the liberating gospel of Christ makes little sense without the law.
Now the issue of the relationship between law and grace, or law and gospel, is a complex and highly debated subject within the Christian church. Indeed, the broader relationships between the Old Testament and the New is also the subject of much debate.
The position taken here is that several extremes must be avoided. We should not preach the law without the gospel. But neither should we preach the gospel without the law. (Of course mention can be made of those who preach neither law nor gospel, but that is another matter.)
That the law is important is highlighted in the introductory piece by Peter Barnes. He rightly points out that while the Western world is afflicted with increasing sin, it is also suffering from a decreasing sense of sin. We are sinning more but recognising it less, I might paraphrase.
Barnes notes that the modern secular world is happy to make up its own system of ethics, based not on love but on tolerance. On the other hand, much of the modern Christian church is either degenerating into antinomianism (disregarding God’s law), or moving to legalism (making up new laws). All three approaches are wrong.
In his introductory article, John Davies reminds us (Protestants at least) that keeping the ten commandments is not the means of gaining salvation or relationship with God. Rather they spell out a relationship with God and how it should develop; a relationship initiated by divine grace, not our own achievements.
In this the experience of Israel comes to mind. God called Israel into a relationship with himself, not based on any merit in Israel. It was only after this father/son relationship was established that the law, including the ten commandments, was given to Israel. Thus the law did not save Israel. God saved Israel, then gave it the law to show how that relationship should progress.
In his chapter on the second commandment, Davies stresses that this is not so much about condemning worship of other gods as condemning worship of God in ways that do not do full justice to his revealed character. And no image of God is allowed because humans are the true image-bearers of God.
Greg Goswell in his discussion of the fifth commandment reminds us that the first four have to do with our relationship with God, while the last six spell out inter-personal relationships. We cannot rightly treat one another if we do not have our relationship with God right.
Lest people think that the ten commandments are just a bunch of dos and don’ts, all relating to external behaviour, the last commandment stresses the internal nature, not just of covetousness, but indeed of all the commandments. Inner motivations and attitudes are just as important as outward actions; something Jesus is to remind us of in the gospels.
When Jesus summarised the law in two commandments (love God and love your neighbour) he did not abrogate the law, notes Douglas Milne. It is not as if love now replaces law. It is rather that love is essential to the right kind of law-keeping.
In an age that has rejected law and morality, the message of the ten commandments needs to be loudly repeated. In an age where moral absolutes have been jettisoned, the law needs to be reaffirmed. This book does a good job of challenging the amoral and antinomian world we live in. Christians of all stripes will profit greatly from reading it.