© Judson Press, Valley Forge, Pa 1983. Revised by the author 2001



Moses is often given credit for giving us these ten commandments. If he were here, I think he would decline the honor. He introduced the commandments in the book of Exodus saying: "God spoke, and these were his words… " (Exodus 20:1). This isn’t just the law of Moses, it is the law of God.

We suffer a moral Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The ethical crisis of our time is not just the widespread violation of accepted moral standards but the denial that there are any standards that are universal and absolute. The very notion of a binding moral code has no meaning for many men and women today. To violate moral standards while at the same time acknowledging their authority is one thing, but to lose all sense of transcendent obligation and to repudiate all moral authority is something far more serious. To be lost on the freeway is bad enough, but to throw the map out the window is worse. And to argue at length that maps don't exist is the worst condition imaginable. We need a Thomas Guide to the human psyche.

Some people try to draw their own moral maps. They think that morality is a do-it-yourself project. For them it is simply a matter of individual, private, personal opinion. Denying that there is a Law-giver to whom they must give an account, they prefer to make up their own rules. They say such things as "I feel that adultery is wrong, but pre-marital sex is okay if you feel you are ready. I feel that abortion is murder, but it's not as bad as euthanasia. I feel… I feel… I feel… " Their moral standard is their state of feeling. Saying "I ought" means nothing more to them than saying "I itch." It's just the way they feel.

Sometimes when a parent tells a kid it's time to clean your room, the kid says, "I don't feel like it."

"I didn't ask if you felt like it. I asked you to do it."


"Because I said so."

That same conversation goes on between all of us and our Heavenly Father. God has spoken but we haven't listened.

Others attempt to avoid the demands of God's laws by appealing to biblical proof texts that seem to abolish it. They may quote Romans 6:14, "You do not live under law but under God's grace," but they fail to go on to the next verse, "What, then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law but under God's grace? By no means!" Paul argues that grace does not give us license to sin; grace gives us power to overcome sin and break its dominion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "You can't hear the last word until you hear the next to last word." You can't know the gospel until you know the law. You can't understand the New Testament until you stand under the Old Testament.

Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true" (Matthew 5:17). Paul asks, "Does this mean that by this faith we do away with the Law?" and then answers, "No, not at all; instead we uphold the Law" (Romans 3:31). Later he says, "The Law itself is holy, and the commandment is holy, right, and good" (Romans 7:12).

Okay, so Law is good, but…

To that question there are three answers, three good uses to which the law is put. The first function of the law is social. It restrains evil in society. Paul told Timothy, "We know that the Law is good if it is used as it should be used. It must be remembered, of course, that laws are made not for good people, but for lawbreakers and criminals, for the godless and sinful" (1 Timothy 1:8-9). The law will not save you from your sins, but it may save others from your sins. Its purpose is to preserve society from moral disintegration. Moses went up Mt. Sinai as the absolute ruler of Israel. He came down from the mountain under the law. Those two stone tablets spelled the end to cultic guruism in Israel. From then on Moses can't say anything without someone asking, "Where is that in the law?"

King David almost became the absolute ruler of Israel, but even he was brought down by the law spoken through the prophet Nathan. There was no prophet in Babylon who could say to Tiglath Pilezar: "Thou art the man." But there was a law in Israel that not even King David could side step.

The Law applied equally to everyone — to rich and poor, powerful and weak. It still does. Laws against drunk driving and speeding apply to the princess and to the pauper. Princess Diana and her entourage paid a horrible price for breaking that law. The death penalty seems severe for breaking a traffic law, but the law itself was drafted to prevent what happened in a Paris tunnel. God's law works the same way. It is designed to restrain evil in society.

The second function of the law is theological. It reveals our sinful condition and thus leads us to Christ. "The law was our schoolmaster [paidagogos] to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Galatians 3:24, KJV). Another word for schoolmaster is chaperone. In ancient Greece and Rome the chaperone was a slave who escorted a child to school and back. He had no authority to control the child's behavior, no authority to punish, and no authority to instruct; he had only the authority to report the child's misbehavior. The theological function of the law is to report our misbehavior. This is a higher view of law than the merely social view. The lower social view leads to legalism in religion, but the higher theological view leads the lawbreaker to seek divine grace. As John Newton said, "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved."

The third function of the law is didactic. It guides those who respond to God's grace. Remember, we are saved by grace not by works (Titus 3:5). The commandments were addressed specifically to those who by grace are already God's people. They begin with the declaration: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). The commandments were given not to the heathen, but to people who were saved by the mighty hand of God — people who entered into covenant with God and promised to love and serve him.

Paul wrote to the Colossians: "We ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will, with all the wisdom and understanding that his Spirit gives. Then you will be able to live as the Lord wants and will always do what pleases him" (Colossians 1:9-l0). Love motivates Christian behavior. Horatius Bonar, writer of the beloved hymn, "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say," wrote, "Will they tell us what is to regulate service, if not law? Love, they say. This is pure fallacy. Love is not a rule but a motive. Love does not tell me what to do; it tells me how to do it. Love constrains me to do the will of the beloved one; but to know what that will is I must go elsewhere. The law of our God is the will of the beloved one."

Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15, KJV).

Although Christians are redeemed by grace through faith, they remain sinners (1 John 1:8) and, therefore, continue to hear the accusations of the law. But now they see the law in a different light, as God's loving will. Like ancient Israel, "They find joy in obeying the Law of the Lord, and they study it day and night" (Psalm 1:2). For them the commandments are not bars on a cage but rafters in a roof that shelters from the storms of life.

Contrary to popular opinion, sin is not what you want to do but can't. Sin is what you should not do because it will hurt you — and hurt you bad. God is not a cosmic policeman. He is a Heavenly Father who loves and protects his children. When a child wants to play on a busy street, a loving parent will say, "Thou shalt not… " Or something equivalent. The child may think the parent is being cranky and bossy. But it is love that gives the command. As the apostle John said, "The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).

The Decalogue and the multiplication table go back far into history, but neither is old-fashioned or out of date. No other code of law has grasped the mind of humankind and influenced behavior so widely and so long as the Ten Commandments — the perfect 10.

"When all else fails, try reading the instructions." That's good advice whether you are trying to assemble a lawn mower or a life. Are there instructions for putting life together so that everything fits with no leftover parts? Is there a Manufacturer's Maintenance Manual for the human psyche? Yes! The most basic list of instructions was given by God in the holy Scriptures.

ABC-TV’s Nightline moderator, Ted Koppel, said at Duke University, "Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the 'Ten Suggestions.' They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then and now, but for all time."

In the words of Moses: "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

For over three thousand years these fundamental laws have served as keys to Judeo-Christian behavior. Not that Jews and Christians have always obeyed them. Our mutual history is a sad story of chronic disobedience. But we have discovered that they still provide the only working keys to unlocking life and releasing us to live fully. They provide ancient wisdom for life today.