How do we relate to the Ten Commandments?

My wife and I saw this meme on a billboard while we were traveling yesterday and it got us to talking about how we, as followers of Christ, relate to the Ten Commandments. This particular meme was originally push-back to Ted Turner’s infamous “Ten Voluntary Initiatives” in the 90’s. But my point here is not about this particular meme but about the premise of the argument itself.

Before I get to that, here’s another less famous meme I saw on Facebook recently:

“Hell awaits all Christian liars. Repent.”

What’s particularly troubling about this one was how many Christians responded with comments like “Amen!” and “Yes!”, as if this would be good thing, even if it were true. I’m continually perplexed by how many sincere followers of Christ have such a fundamental misunderstanding of what (or Who) saves us from such a fate.

Of course, they construe this particular sentiment from Revelation 21:8, but if we’re going to “pluck” this passage out and read it with wooden literalism, then we must also pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands if they cause us to sin (Matt.5:29; 18:9), or other similar direct commands given in Scripture, which if taken with the same literalism would also totally negate the cross of Christ.

The more interesting question is about the relevance of the Ten Commandments to followers of Christ. And I want to emphasize before I continue that they do represent the moral heart of God. Even atheists agree we should not steal, kill, lie, covet, etc.

But to answer the question, we need to first understand the radical differences between the Old and New Covenants. I don’t want to repeat everything I said in “Clarifying New Covenant Confusion” (you can refer to that post for further explanation), but there are a few differences worth mentioning here:

Under the Old Covenant, the people of Israel were the covenant keepers; under the New Covenant, Jesus is the covenant keeper.

Under the Old Covenant, sin was dealt with through continual sacrifice; under the New Covenant, sin is taken away forever and remembered no more by God.

Under the Old Covenant, the Law was written on stones; under the New Covenant the true nature of the Law is written on human hearts.

Under the Old Covenant, we were kept by keeping the Law; under the New Covenant we are kept by Christ (we were placed in Him).

The Old Covenant is about behavior modification which made us sin-conscious; the New Covenant is about the New Creation which makes us God-conscious.

It just seems strange to me that this would even need to be explained to Christians since these are some of the most fundamental aspects of Christianity.

So, here’s the thing: whether the Ten Commandments are requirements or suggestions is irrelevant. That argument absolutely misses the point. The real issue is explained by the following two considerations from Galatians:

When we try to make the Ten Commandments requirements for our right standing with God, we’re not obeying God; we’ve actually alienated ourselves from Christ and have fallen from His grace:

You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Gal.5:4*)

But when (and only when) we put our trust in Christ by faith, yielding our hearts to His indwelling Spirit and cooperating with His workings in us, we will produce fruit that looks like other-centered, self-giving love, which is the fulfillment and the whole intent of the Law in the first place:

14 For all the law is fulfilled in one wordeven in this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal.5:14*)

Under the Old Covenant, obedience to the Ten Commandments was a requirement; under the New Covenant such obedience is the fruit of the Spirit.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Gal.5:22-23*)

* New King James Bible translation (NKJV) unless otherwise noted. All emphasis added.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 39 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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15 Responses to How do we relate to the Ten Commandments?

  1. tsalmon says:

    Wonderful Reverend! This seems to represent the major misunderstanding between Christians today, even between Christians of the same denomination. And yet we all refer to the same Bible.

    Do you think that there may be something deep in human nature that finds simple comfort in fundamentalist rule following? It seems to me that the power of God’s expectation of us that you are evoking here is easy to legalistically diminish because of its simplicity and yet impossibly difficult (without God) to implement in our lives.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Great points, Tony. Yes, you hit the nail on the head. Human nature stems from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Basically, we’re eating from the wrong tree by following our unrenewed mind. When it’s all said and done, we prefer legalism because we want to be the judge. We can do it without having to have an ongoing relationship. But we inevitably supplant God’s role, thus making us oblivious to His perspective and nature. This has been the tragic flaw in thinking since the Garden. On the other hand, authentic Christianity is not really possible simply by following rules and trying to behave. It requires an ongoing relationship of humility and trust and cooperation with the indwelling Spirit of Christ. Trying to be a Christian without this is empty religion.

      It’s interesting that you find, all throughout Scripture, legalism versus relationship in the various leaders. But all the heroes of the faith, like David, prioritized an intimate relationship with God over trying to be righteous by rule-keeping. They obeyed because of the relationship, not the other way around (“compelled by love” – 2 Cor.5:14). And it was the relationship that gave them great insight and courage to overcome their circumstances. This the whole point of what the writer of Hebrews is saying in chapter 11.

      • tsalmon says:

        Thank you Mel. I wish that I had you as a pocket Reverend to carry around for inspiration and to clear up discussions with my fellow Christians when they confuse such legalism with the far more profound message of Jesus. Unlike you, I am ill equipped to explain this, but I feel what you say in my bones, in my heart and in my mind.

        Part of the problem seems to be the endlessly aspirational quality of human perfection through Christ. As you say, it is easier to judge (even ourselves) and it is strange how something so mysteriously simple as faith remains so hard to abandon one’s body and soul to completely, like a leap into the eternal, People can be so obtuse, so closed to just the grace they unconsciously crave that they dive into the minutia and miss the awesome message staring them in the face. .

        Have you written a book on this, and if not, why not?

        • Mel Wild says:

          I think you have it! 🙂

          Yes, I did write a book about the grace and love transformation that took place in me. It’s called, “Sonshift: Everything Changes in the Father’s Embrace.”

    • Citizen Tom says:

      @tsalmon

      There is a mischaracterization of Fundamentalism here. Fundamentalism refers to the fundamentals, not being a rule following Pharisee. Unfortunately, critics did what critics often do these days. Instead of debating the merits of their opponents arguments, they debated the merits of their opponents.

      The term Fundamentalist was originally adopted by ministers who quite well understood that Jesus saves, not works.
      The term Fundamentalist was adopted by folks who defended the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, that Christians should continue to trust the Bible. They opposed ministers who who were more willing to adopt Liberal interpretations of the Bible based upon various notions, including the idea that the Bible contains significant errors.

      Can you find people who still call themselves fundamentalist who believe in being rule following Pharisees? Yes, but most Fundamentalists call themselves something else now. When those who once called themselves Fundamentalists failed to successfully defend the obvious meaning of that word, they did not have any choice.

  2. hawk2017 says:

    Excellent.

  3. dpmonahan says:

    Young man: how do I inherit the kingdom?
    Jesus: follow the commandments.

    • Mel Wild says:

      I take it you’re referring to the “Rich Young Ruler” in Matt.19. I do hope you do realize that this is an example of the young man’s epic failure to inherit the kingdom by following the commandments. Jesus’ said this to him to expose his self-righteousness. Here’s the passage in its context.

      16 Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?

      17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

      18 He said to Him, “Which ones?”

      Jesus said, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

      So good so far. Notice that this very thing is what the young ruler already did.

      20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”

      Here’s where Jesus turned his security in following the commandments on its head, exposing his self-righteousness (which the Law always does)…

      21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

      And it’s these very commandments that revealed the man’s epic fail…

      22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

      So, ironically, Jesus proved to the man that he wouldn’t inherit the kingdom by simply obeying the commandments. There’s always one thing we lack.

      Of course, the response of these good Jewish followers would be expected.

      25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?

      Which finally brings us to Jesus’ point for saying these things in the first place:

      26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

      What don’t we get about “impossible?” The young ruler wanted to play the game, so Jesus showed him that the deck is forever stacked against him if he wishes to continue along this line. He left because his faith was in his “good works” and not in Christ. He failed.

      As Paul said in Romans 7, there’s nothing wrong with the commandments. In fact, that’s exactly the problem. They’re perfect. They’re designed to bring the death of us. For if they don’t drive us to the feet of Jesus and cause us to surrender all of that for His empowering grace, we still don’t get it. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for…eternal life, which is only found in Christ’s life.

      • dpmonahan says:

        You argue that Jesus isn’t saying what he is obviously saying.
        Let’s recap:
        Young man: what do I have to do to get eternal life?
        Jesus: follow the commandments.
        YM: but I want more!
        Jesus: OK, here is more.
        YM: Ummm, no thanks, bye.
        The straightforward reading is that two separate questions are being asked, with two separate answers.
        It makes more sense to read this as a fleshed out example of Jesus’ sayings about not undertaking religious obligations that are too much to bear (building a tower and not finishing, etc). I.E. don’t bite off more than you can chew.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Sorry, I think you’re reading your conclusions into this. There is no “here is more!” The young man was told to sell all his possessions if he wanted treasure in heaven. He refused so he went away sorrowful, not glad that he had succeeded. Jesus’ response gives us the proper interpretation:

          23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

          25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”

          26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

          The rich man’s idol was his possessions. The Law revealed that he actually wasn’t following the commandments perfectly (other-centered, self-giving love) so he failed.

          If people can enter the kingdom of God simply by doing good works then Christ died in vain. You have totally negated the cross, not to mention, the whole New Testament teaching. The Law was given to drive us to Christ and inherit His life, which is eternal life. It has nothing to do with good works, although we will do good works as the fruit of our relationship.

          24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (Gal.3:24-25)

          So, sorry, you can’t put new wine in old wine skins. If you’re going to follow Christ you have to give up your self-righteousness.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Btw, when I say “you” I mean anyone. 🙂

        • dpmonahan says:

          The Mosaic Law nowhere states that someone must give up all of his possessions, so Jesus can’t be revealing the YM’s condemnation according to a law that does not exist.
          The question is not whether a person can earn his way into heaven (and much less whether I believe I can do that), but whether obedience to the ten commandments is essential for salvation. In this case it is exactly what Jesus recommends to someone who is not capable of a more serious commitment. It is what John the Baptist recommended to the various reprobates who approached him, to great effect. Paul threatened his congregants with hellfire for immoral behavior even as he preached the abrogation of the Mosaic Law.
          Paul could do that because he did not conflate the moral law with the Mosaic law, which you are here doing. He considered the Mosaic law binding on Jews, and no loner binding, while the moral law was binding on all, and still is. As a result Paul could say that drunkards, thieves and adulterers will not enter eternal life but not worry about the uncircumcised or eaters of pork because they were separate things in his mind.

        • Mel Wild says:

          “The question is not whether a person can earn his way into heaven (and much less whether I believe I can do that), but whether obedience to the ten commandments is essential for salvation.”

          That is the point and you have it backwards. The commandments never saved anyone, nor can they be a requirement for salvation (eternal life). Salvation comes by grace through faith alone (Eph.2:8). We only actually obey the commandments because of our life in Christ (Eph.2:10). You cannot add obeying the Ten Commandments to faith in Christ. One is human performance (we obey commandments), the other is faith in Christ that works in us. That is NOT the covenant we belong to, which is between Christ and God. We belong because we have been placed in Him at the Cross. We obey because Christ lives in us, empowering us to obey, not the other way around.

          And I’m not conflating anything, I’m mainly talking about the Ten Commandments. Paul called the “moral law” “The ministry of death engraved on stones” in 2 Cor.3:7, which could only be referring to the Ten Commandments (engraved on stones on Mt.Sinai). Again, not that they were flawed or bad, they were perfect. The point of giving them was to reveal God’s love and our utter failure to keep them in our own strength. It exposes our eating from the wrong tree. As Paul said, the Law is good but it brings death in us (Rom.7:7-13). And he is specifically referring to the Ten Commandments in Romans 7. Trying to obey them does not produce any righteousness at all. It only produces death. It exposes our self-righteousness, which brings about the death of our trying to save ourselves (which is what the young rich ruler was trying to do).

          7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. 9 I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. 10 And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. 11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. (Rom.7:7-11)

          You cannot be saved by keeping the moral Law because if you don’t keep it perfectly, you break the whole law.

          10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. (James 2:10)

          Again, the bottom line is, if what you’re saying is true then Jesus died in vain and we’re all lost.

          21 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Gal.2:21)

          We are only justified by faith, apart from the Law…

          27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Rom.3:27-28)

          We are saved by faith through grace. Period. Anything other than this is false, “another gospel,” a religious form of bondage which Paul said puts us under a curse (Gal.1:6-9), because we cannot obey the Law perfectly so we put ourselves under a curse (Gal.3:10-14).

          I will finish this conversation by saying that I love the Ten Commandments.They represent the perfect moral law, what other-centered, self-giving love looks like. But I don’t delude myself into thinking I can follow them to attain any part of salvation. I follow them by living according to Christ’s life in me (Gal.2:20) that teaches me how to live a godly life (Titus 2:11-12). Other than this is just empty religion, philosophies of men, that produces nothing but death.

  4. A huge amen, Mel! All of it. Also I highly recommend reading your blog while laying on the beach with the family.☺

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