Grace and the Ten Commandments

Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18 NIV).

Paul: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom 6:14 NIV).

The church that I grew up in was not ornately built. In fact it was rather plain. This meant that the huge plaques pinned on the front wall stood out even more starkly.

On them was written the Ten Commandments in a kind of medieval lettering (which made them look all the more fearsome).

The story of the delivery of the Ten Commandments to Moses is no less dramatic than their appearance on the far wall of my church.

The law itself is script that Jesus lives out. It is his story in the end.

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai from his encounter with the holy God with his two tablets of stone to an awestruck Israel. The first time he does it, he smashes them in rage because he sees them worshipping the golden calf, and thus breaking the central precept of the law even as they receive it: “You shall have no other gods before me”.

It’s extraordinary stuff. The Ten Commandments are given to Israel—along with 603 others—not simply as a suggestion but as a rule of life in God’s land under God’s authority. This is what made them who they were. It was a distinctive moral and ceremonial pattern for their communal living, telling them what festivals to celebrate, who you could marry, what you could eat and what you should do when you had a period.

When you read Psalm 119, a kind of love song to the torah (the Hebrew name for the law), you get a picture of what the study and observance of the law might mean to an Israelite mind. In Psalm 19, we hear these memorable words:

The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul; the decrees of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple… They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb (Ps 19:7,10).

Gold and oozing honey: that’s pretty powerful imagery, especially in a culture with no refined sugar!

But what of Christians? What role is the Old Testament law meant to have in the life of Christian believers? How and on what day should Christians observe the Sabbath, for example? What does it mean for Paul to say “you are not under the law, but under grace?” Does he mean by this that grace and the law are in opposition to one another? In what way? Had the sweet taste of the law become suddenly bitter?

There are some pretty strong statements in the New Testament, particularly from Paul, about the law, suggesting in Romans 7:6, for example, that Christians “have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”

The law made us slaves. It could not save us. The regulations and rituals of the Old Covenant were shadows of the things that were to come in Christ, and not by themselves able to save anyone. When Paul introduces the fruit of the Spirit in that extraordinary passage at the end of Galatians, he also says “against these things there is no law”(5:32), as if to say law-thinking completely misses the point when it comes to the gospel of Christ.

This is a question that has proved extremely controversial in the history of Christianity. Most Christian readers of the Old Testament will recognise that the Old Testament law is the word of God, and needs to be taken with all the seriousness that that implies.

Now, very few Christians teachers have suggested that the whole 613 precepts of the Old Testament law ought to be observed by Christians (though there’ll always be one or two!). In the first place, there’s clear New Testament evidence of the Jewish apostles feeling free to transgress against the food laws, for example. Likewise, the entirety of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an argument to non-Jewish believers trying to convince them that they don’t need to follow the Jewish law or be circumcised in order to become Christians.

Usually people are selective about which parts of the law still apply to Christians, and how that might work. Perhaps it is only the Ten Commandments that still matter. Or perhaps what we might call the ‘ceremonial’ laws are no longer relevant, while the more ‘moral’ and ‘civil’ ones are. (This division of the law into three can be found, for example, in the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion).

The trouble with that way of thinking is that it is not so easy to divide the Old Testament law into discrete categories. Is the Sabbath law a moral or a ceremonial law? Isn’t all the law about right behaviour as an act of worship of the one true God?

And at this point, some readers of the Bible have suggested that the Old Testament law has no ongoing relevance for the Christian life—other than perhaps the way Jesus summed it up as love of God and love of neighbour (Mark 12:29-31). The fear is that the New Testament’s emphasis on grace will be compromised by any suggestion that there are still things that Christians are commanded to do. It is so easy for us to slip back into the kind of legalism from which grace freed us in the first place.

But there is an important biblical frame around this issue.

First, we have to remember that the word “law’” or torah, refers not simply to the commands of the Old Testament but to the whole of the first five books of Scripture, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. That means that the commands are not without a context: they are received in the middle of the narrative of the liberation and redemption of Israel from Egypt and their entry into the promised land. You can’t read the laws without the story, which is a story of the grace of God.

The grace of God precedes the giving of the law, and not the other way around. It was never the case (as you sometimes hear) that in the Old Testament people got in by works, but now in the New Testament, we are included by grace. It was always grace! And grace produces godliness, then as now.

What’s more (secondly), the laws themselves were not simply timeless moral truths for life anywhere anytime, but were a complicated symbolic system for teaching the Israelites about the holiness of God and of the need for being right with God. To live under the law was to know the character of the God of Israel. And not simply to know his character: it was to be called to worship him rightly, as he directed.

That’s why the Ten Commandments begin with commands to worship God and only him. Sadly, these are the ones people often forget. But the law also pointed forward (thirdly) to its own need for fulfilling or completion. That you had to make atonement for your sins showed again and again that the law itself was not sufficient to save.

This makes sense of Jesus’ teaching about the law. He preaches against legalism: those who think they have some grounds for ethnic and moral pride on account of the law are those he scolds the most. But the law itself is something he prizes. The law is the script that Jesus himself lives out. It is his story in the end. He understands inner purpose of the law, that it is about love of God and of neighbour. And he accomplishes its purposes, by bringing people into communion with God.

So, is the Old Testament law for Christian living? The New Testament authors do make quite positive use of the law as a guide for the Christian life in some places. In James 2, for example, the author uses the Ten Commandments as a touchstone for his discussion of holiness. Paul repeats Jesus’ teaching about love as the central component and summary of the law in Romans 13. But in doing so it is not as if he says that anything in the Ten Commandments would be contrary to Christian life.

And this is perhaps key: the New Testament is saying we are at a different point in the story. Holiness for the people of God looks different now because we are living in a new day, after the accomplishment of the law in the death of Jesus. But the law is not thereby made simply irrelevant. Is it Christian to worship God exclusively and rightly? Of course. Is it now right to kill, or to commit adultery, where once it was not? Of course not. Love is a summary of the law, but love is not thereby simply exchanged for the commandments. The commandments, which are acted out in the life of Jesus, paint for us the colours of love.