In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 4 to 5 to take down a copy of the Ten Commandments from a Kentucky school. The court’s reasoning was that the presence of the Ten Commandments had infringed upon the children’s constitutional rights. The court said that their public presence could “induce the school children to read, mediate upon, or perhaps venerate and obey the Commandments.”
The court was right in one respect. Even the passive display of the Ten Commandments can cause people to change their behavior. However, the sad part is this: most Christians don’t even know the Ten Commandments.
When I was a young boy growing up we were trained to memorize, among other things, the Ten Commandments. For any society or culture that loses its moral compass – regardless of how good its economy is – that society or culture is on the decline. That has been the case since the beginning of time.
But many Christians ask the question, if we cannot be saved by the Commandments, what’s the purpose in keeping them? Why be so hot and bothered about keeping them in the forefront? Why make such an issue over them – holding them up for ourselves and others – when eternal life is only possible through Jesus Christ?
Those are very good questions. To begin to answer them, we can turn to John Bunyan, the famous English preacher and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan said, “The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Savior.”
What does Bunyan mean by this? He is essentially saying that because the Ten Commandments come directly from God, they reflect the divine character of God; because they come directly from God, they remind every human who breaks them that we are lawbreakers who commit offense against God, because they come directly from God, they remind us that He is not only our grace-giver, but also our judge.
This is why the Ten Commandments were written on stones and not Egyptian papyrus. The fact they were carved into stone should tell us that they will endure as time endures. The whims of man cannot change them. They can’t be modified to suit a rebellious culture. They can’t be rewritten to ease the guilt of the wicked.
The commandments are permanent – so permanent that they existed in the mind of God long before He gave them to Moses. They have been with us since the beginning.
When Cain killed his brother Abel, he broke the sixth commandment and God condemned him. That was thousands of years before Moses. Noah’s son Ham despised his father and broke the fifth commandment and he was cursed. That was also thousands of years before Moses. The Sodomites broke the seventh commandment and were condemned as adulterers and immoral people, and their city was burned.
Lot’s wife was condemned as a covetous person in Genesis 19; Abraham was condemned as a liar in Genesis 20; Rachael was condemned as a thief in Genesis 31. All those things happened long before the Ten Commandments were engraved in stone and given to Moses.
Why? Because God has always dealt with His people based on His law. And his law always reflects His character. That is why Paul said to the Romans that God’s law was written in the hearts of all people (Romans 2:15).
In fact, God’s moral laws go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they broke just about every one of the Ten Commandments. They stole God’s property. They coveted what was not theirs. They worshipped another god. And on and on. And for that, they brought death and curse upon all humanity.
Salvation has always been through grace – not by keeping the law. In the New Testament, salvation is by grace. And in the Old Testament, salvation was by grace as well.
But what is law if there’s no need for it? That’s where the Ten Commandments come in. Not only do they show us that we are lawbreakers, but they drive us to God. Only when I know that I’m a lawbreaker do I become desperate for the grace of God.
Since the beginning, humans were supposed to live by the Commandments. And since the beginning, it was impossible to do that perfectly.
But many Christians miss that salvation in the Old Testament was through grace. Before God ever uttered the Ten Commandments to Moses, he first said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).
Did Israel need to keep the Ten Commandments as a condition for their salvation from slavery? No. Salvation from bondage was God’s gracious act. Salvation from bondage was God’s gift. It was of His goodness. It was from His unconditional love and mercy.
The Israelites could no more have earned their salvation from bondage by keeping the Ten Commandments than you and I can today. If their salvation was dependent on keeping the Commandments, they would still be knee-deep in Egyptian mud.
After their salvation, God revealed Himself to them. He essentially said, “I have saved you. I have redeemed you. I have rescued you, graced you, poured my mercy on you, and done for you what you could never do for yourselves. Therefore live as a people who belongs to Me. And to help you live like you belong to Me, here is my character, my standards. They have always been with us.
The U.S. Supreme Court may have wanted us to move away from the Ten Commandments. Most of the country, in fact, may want us to move away from the Ten Commandments. But the commandments are permanent. They have always been with us.
The model was there from the start – written in the heart of every human. We need to obey God and His rules; there will be consequences for our disobedience, and God will choose to rescue us despite our disobedience.
From the start, the stage was set for Jesus – the Son of God who would lead us to eternal life and affirm God’s moral rules."