What About the Ten Commandments?

Why were the Ten Commandments given, and were they meant for all peoples, or just for the Israelites? And should they be posted in court rooms?

The Ten Commandments form a summary of man’s moral obligation before God. They were given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai some 3,500 years ago, but they spell out man’s duty to God for all peoples in all times.

It’s unfortunate, but many Christians have a very negative view of God’s law. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first has to do with our fallen human nature. We simply don’t like to be told what to do. And we don’t like to have it pointed out to us that our behavior is at certain points sinful. We want to do whatever we want, with no limitations to our freedom. But God’s law says that some things are out of bounds; some things are off limits for us, and if we do them it angers God.

The second reason why many Christians have a negative view of the law is because of a misunderstanding of some things that Paul says in the New Testament. He says, for instance, that we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). People have isolated this statement from its context and have interpreted it to mean that the law has no validity for a Christian, no ongoing binding authority. They think it only applied in the period of the Old Testament.

In context, however, what Paul is saying is that Christians are not under the law as a means of justification. We are justified by the grace of God, and not by the law.

Does this mean then that the law has no role in the life of the Christian? No. It doesn’t mean that at all. The law is still the standard of righteousness that we are to live by. Paul tells us in Romans 7:12 that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” He says in 1 Corinthians, “Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).

It is common among theologians to refer to several “uses” of the law.

One of these is that it serves as the standard of righteous behavior. In other words, it teaches us what God requires of us. And as God’s people we should desire this instruction.

Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD,and whom you teach out of your law (Ps. 94:12).

Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! (Ps. 119:12)

Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! (Ps. 119:29)

Another use of the law is that it convicts us of sin.

Through law comes the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20)

If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet (Rom. 7:7)

So the law convicts us of sin; and being convicted of sin, we are prepared to seek the grace and mercy of God offered to us in Jesus Christ.

Another use of the law is that of restraining evil in society. The Bible teaches that the civil magistrate “does not bear the sword in vain,” but is a “servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). In other words, civil magistrates are to rule on behalf of God, and they are to rule in terms of God’s law.

So then, even though they were given specifically to the Israelites 1,500 years before Christ, the Ten Commandments apply to all peoples in all times, and they ought to form the foundation of a nation’s legal system.


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