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Understanding the Law

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In Exodus 19, the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai. The LORD appears on top of the mountain, and Moses is invited to climb the peak to receive instructions from the LORD. In Exodus 20, God begins to dictate his laws to Moses, starting with a synopsis of God’s moral standards, commonly known as the 10 Commandments. 

Before giving the commandments, the LORD prefaced his law with these words, ““I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Ex. 20:2) This prologue to the 10 Commandments is crucial to understanding their purpose. The law was given after God saved his people from Egypt, not before. This is important. Imagine if God had appeared to his people while they still enslaved in Egypt and said, “Here are my rules. If you prove to me that you can obey my rules, then I will deliver you from your bondage.” If this had happened, the people would have never been saved, for they would never have kept the law perfectly. Like us, however, the Israelites were saved by grace. God delivered them from their bondage before they had kept (or even heard of) any of his laws. It is true that their possession of the Promised Land was contingent on their obedience to the covenant (Ex. 19:5), but their deliverance from Egypt was a gift from God. The commandments were given to them to show them how to thrive under God’s covenant, not as a condition for entering the covenant. 

This is important for Christians to know. Sometimes people mistakenly think, “In the Old Testament God’s people were saved by works, but today we are saved by grace. Therefore, good works no longer matter to God.” However, Exodus 20:1-2 shows us that the Israelites were also saved by grace. Obedience to God’s moral law was, nevertheless, important for them, and it is important for us – not to earn salvation but to live in response to salvation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The preface to the ten commandments teacheth us, that because God is the Lord, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments.” We keep the commandments, not to earn salvation but to honor the God who saved us. 

Yes, the 10 Commandments still apply to Christians today. It is true that much of the Mosaic Law is no longer applicable to us. For example, the laws concerning ritual purity and temple worship have been abrogated by the New Testament. (Mark 7:18-20; Colossians 2:20-23; Hebrews 7:11-12; 10:1-18) Similarly, the civil laws related to life in ancient Israel are no longer binding, since Christians are to follow the laws of whatever political system they live under. (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:1-7) However, the moral principles reflected in the 10 Commandments are restated and reinforced in the New Testament. (Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 18:20; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; 2 John 1:6)

1 Timothy 1:8 says, “The law is good if one uses it properly.” How do Christians properly use God’s moral law? The law essentially has two helpful uses for us. 

First, the law serves as a mirror. (James 1:23-25) Just as peering into a mirror shows us what we really look like to others, peering into the law shows us what we really look like to God. It reveals our sinfulness. Paul wrote, “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.” (Rom. 7:7) The reason God wants us to see our sinfulness is not so that we will feel condemned or even so that we will try hard to change. God wants us to see our sinfulness so that we will turn to Christ for forgiveness and salvation. The law helps bring this to pass. Just as beholding your dirty face in a mirror causes you to turn on the water for cleansing, seeing our dirty souls reflected in the law moves us to turn to Jesus to be cleansed and forgiven. 

A second important function of the law is to serve as a map. As people redeemed by the blood of Jesus, we will certainly want to live in ways that please our God. The moral laws found in Scripture guide us in doing this. Like a good map, God’s laws show us what path to follow to express our gratitude to the Lord through our obedience. The law helps us to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). Because the Lord has saved us, we love him and want to please him by obeying his commands. 1 John 5:3 says, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome ….”

It is important to remember, however, that though the law is a great mirror and a helpful map, it is a horrible ladder. To use the 10 Commandments to attempt to climb up into heaven through our own effort will only lead to frustration and failure. Romans 3:20 says, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” We are people saved by grace, not by works!