The Ten Commandments – More than a Symbol

Founders Journal 68 · Spring 2007 · pp. 1-5

The Ten Commandments
More than a Symbol

Tom Ascol

The Ten Commandments have made a lot of news in America over the last few years. When Roy Moore took office in 2001 as the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court he commissioned and installed in the state Supreme Court building a granite monument with the Commandments inscribed on it. Despite a federal court order, Judge Moore refused to remove the display. Only after the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case did the 5280 pound monument vacate the premises.

Despite their eviction from the Supreme Court building in Alabama, the Ten Commandments, or at least the public display of them on monuments and placards, have continued to be a source of cultural angst for conservative Christians across our land. The removal of such displays from the public square has become a rallying cry for conservatives whose passion is to “keep America one nation under God,” as the Ten Commandments Commission (TCC) recently put it.

Those behind this commission circulated a petition this spring proclaiming the second annual “Ten Commandments Day” in America. Part of their call included the following:

We, the members of the Ten Commandments Commission and supporting people of faith, proclaim The Ten Commandments Day on the first Sunday in the month of May, commencing on Sunday, May Sixth of 2007.

Furthermore, we proclaim the Ten Commandments Day to be a day dedicated for the display, awareness, commemoration and celebration of the Decalogue which we know to be the divine foundation of the Judeo-Christian faith.

We, the members of the commission, serve as a cohesive group of spiritual leaders representing millions of followers who affirm the beauty and the uniqueness of our differences. We believe that rooted in the Ten Commandments is a Divine plan that transcends color and diversity in cultural expression, sanctions brotherhood of man and respects expressions in all of God’s children.

We, who serve as a council of leaders, are committed to utilizing our united passion to provide purpose and direction for reversing the enormous tide of immorality continuing to be released throughout the United States of America, and on all continents of the world. This unified voice will culminate annually on the Ten Commandments Day and provide for a united, global, spiritual platform based on the Ten Commandments. This platform will respond to the call echoed throughout creation for a true expression of love, harmony and reconciliation among all nations, ethnic diversities and genders through education and rededication to the moral standard as given by our Loving Creator.

Therefore, we are calling on all community and spiritual leaders; churches, synagogues, fellowships, ministries, organizations and all who care about moral values, to celebrate the annual Ten Commandments Day by hosting local events in support of the Ten Commandments and what they represent.[1]

I greatly appreciate the motivation and concerns of those who are behind these efforts. Several years ago our own church went door-to-door in our city giving out frame-worthy posters with the Commandments printed on them. We presented nicely framed wall-hangings to many civic leaders in town.

I do not believe that the gospel can be preached in its fullness and beauty without a clear understanding of God’s law. I agree with John Bunyan when he 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.” Furthermore, I am not convinced that J. Gresham Machen was overstating the case when he wrote in What is Faith?

A new and more powerful proclamation of [the] law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law…. So it always is; a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail.[2]

Because of my convictions in this area some might find it surprising to learn that I am not a fan of many of the efforts to promote the publication of the Ten Commandments in the public square. My lack of enthusiasm has nothing to do with a lack of appreciation of the law. Neither do I doubt the role of the law in restraining sin in society. I think it would be wonderful if there were a greater consciousness of the Ten Commandments throughout our society. Nevertheless, efforts like those of the TCC strike me as ill-conceived and ultimately self-defeating for at least two reasons.

First, such efforts seem to confuse the role of both the law and the gospel. In a recent email celebrating the success of the second Ten Commandments Day, the TCC founder wrote, the day “was celebrated nationally by thousands of citizens, Christians and Jews, who seek to keep America One Nation Under God and reaffirmed their commitment to the Word of God by signing the Ten Commandments Proclamation.”

America has never been a Christian nation though it has been a nation tremendously blessed in its past by vital Christianity and faithful Christian citizens. While I love my fellow citizens who are not Christian I cannot pretend that any regard for deity that does not submit to the revelation of God in trinity as revealed by the eternal Son of God is an acknowledgement of the only true God. Linking arms with anti-Trinitarians to make America one nation under a generic, and therefore, unbiblical God is hardly appropriate for followers of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, to suggest that the signature of a faithful Jew on the Ten Commandments indicates his or her reaffirmation of “commitment to the Word of God” means that the “Word” envisioned is something significantly less than the 66 books that Christians regard as inspired. What faithful Jew regards the New Testament as “the Word of God”?

While Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons would all affirm the Ten Commandments in some sense, only Christ-followers can possibly understand the real purpose and place of God’s law in the revelation of salvation. As Ken Puls illustrates in his article on “Christ and the Sabbath,” the law of God is all about Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27, 44–45). Apart from this understanding of the law, the best that those who trumpet the Ten Commandments can ever hope for is a moralistic society.

While I suppose that it is indeed better to live in a moralistic society than in an immoral one, neither would constitute living in “one nation under God.” My fear is that many Christians who are getting caught up in the public display of the Ten Commandments do not understand this. What our nation needs cannot be delivered by the law of God. Our situation is so desperate that our only hope is revival and revival will only come through the proclamation of the gospel.

When the gospel comes in power the results will not be moralism but renewal in every realm, including our morality. God’s law will once again be honored but not as an end in itself that is viewed exclusively or even primarily as a standard for outward conduct. Rather it will be seen by Christians as an expression of our gracious God’s will for His people and will be embraced from the heart. They will proclaim it not as a way to get people or nations right with God but as His unchangeable standard of righteousness by which every person will be judged. When Christians live in that way society will be positively impacted far beyond what any “celebration” of the Ten Commandments can ever achieve.

A second reason that recent parading of the Ten Commandments does not excite me has to do with a glaring oversight on the part of those who are leading the cause. Whom has God charged with the responsibility to be the “pillar and ground of truth?” The church (1 Timothy 3:15). The church has a stewardship that involves both defending and proclaiming God’s truth—including the truth of His law. Yet, how can this be done when most of those who visibly identify themselves cannot even name the Ten Commandments, much less explain them?

Antinomianism—both doctrinal and practical—has eroded the biblical teaching of God’s law in many, if not most, of the evangelical churches in our country. It strikes me as odd, to say the least, to see many who theologically have dismissed the law from their theology of grace and salvation line up to bang the drum for getting the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in public places. Various forms of Dispensationalism have little if any use for the Ten Commandments as an abiding standard of God’s righteousness. Yet some of the staunchest defenders of those types of Dispensationalism are also the loudest spokesmen for getting the Commandments back in courtrooms and classrooms.

Nowhere does this inconsistency become more evident than at the point of considering the fourth Commandment. The whole “Sabbath issue” tends to be very divisive among evangelicals who care enough even to think about it. Even among those who believe that the Ten Commandments have an abiding relevance to this Gospel age there are many who balk at taking the fourth Commandment seriously.

Some of that hesitation is understandable. In the new covenant we most certainly are not under any obligations to keep a Jewish Sabbath, as our brothers and sisters under the old covenant were. Throughout history there have been well-meaning teachers who seemingly did not make that distinction very clear in their advocacy of a “Christian Sabbath.” Reactions against teachings that were more suited to the old than the new covenant led to a complete rejection of any abiding Sabbath principle in this new covenant era.

While I am not convinced by the arguments of my brothers who take that position, I do wish that, when they talk positively about the Commandments that they would be consistent enough to speak of the “Nine Commandments” rather than the Ten. How many of those who are championing the public crusade for the “Ten Commandments” in our day have any serious commitment to the fourth one? I doubt if they would constitute even a sizable minority.

The Ten Commandments are more than a symbol. The same God who gave the gospel gave us His law. Those who know God and have been reconciled to Him through faith in Jesus Christ should seek to honor Him by believing the gospel and living according to His righteous requirements summarized in those Commandments. As John Newton wrote, “Clearly to understand the distinction, connection and harmony between the Law and the Gospel, and their mutual subserviency to illustrate and establish each other, is a singular privilege, and a happy means of preserving the soul from being entangled by errors on the right hand or the left.”[3]

Notes:

1 From the Ten Commandments Day website, http://www.tencommandmentsday.com/petition.php, accessed May 7, 2008.

2 J. Grecham Machen, What Is Faith? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1969), 141–142.

3 The Works of John Newton, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 350.