So the law is holy, and the commandment is
holy and righteous and good. Romans 7:12
Einstein’s theory of relativity no longer applies just to the world of theoretical physics. It is very much the spirit of the age manifest in what is commonly known as relativism. This is the controlling philosophy which denies the existence of universal, objective truth, but instead considers truth as something more fluid and situational. It is best summed up in the phrase, “Well it may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me.” The most obvious way in which this plays out is in the area of ethics, where what is right or wrong, good or bad, depends on the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people.
In this cultural reality, the concept of something like the Ten Commandments seems quaint and archaic. And to insist that they be normative or relevant for ethical guidance in our current age is less and less appealing to many. So the attempt to refer to them in a sermon (even in passing), let alone the plan to dedicate a whole sermon series to them, seems counter-intuitive. All the “you shalls” and “you shall nots” are so alien to our contemporary ears that they might cause some to squirm in their seat, especially if they have been formed by the relativistic-impulse dominant in contemporary society. And if we want to bring our pre-believing friends, family and neighbours to church, we worry that they may be turned off by it. So why are we doing it?
These commandments form the basis of God’s law and his covenant with his people. They are the foundation of our worship and liturgy and help shape our prayers and how we are meant to live our lives as followers of the Way. The Ten Commandments, which are also known as the Decalogue (which means “ten words”), actually form the basis of civil law in our country and most societies around the world. But their importance goes far beyond that. They are the epitome of God’s law, which are the commands or expectations that God has given to the human race, so that we may flourish as families and communities in creation.
Scripture says, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12) God’s intention is for “the law is to work order into the world and sustain His ongoing creation.” (Mark Mattes, Law and Gospel in Action, p.2) Yet what we see all around us are disorder and decay. We live in a world that not only ignores but denies the law of God. Our instinct under these circumstances is to pursue a more forceful application of the law. But Paul tells us that, “…sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.” (Romans 7:8) Application of the law can only restrain sinful human beings. The law cannot change us. Our sinful natures will instinctually rebel against it and act in accordance with our inherent sinfulness. This is why Paul laments, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:19, 24)
So what then is the purpose of the law? It is meant to be our “guardian” which shepherds us to Christ. (Galatians 3:24). And this is why the Bible says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4) The ultimate purpose of the law in the life of sinners (like us!) is to condemn all our attempts at living self-sufficiently, apart from the grace of God, which is a pretence and fatally-flawed edifice, built upon a false humility. The law points out that we are in a rebellion against the kindness and generosity of God. As the Lutheran theologian Mark Mattes says, “The law causes sinners to despair of themselves and so leads them to find no other recourse for salvation or wholeness other than the mercy granted to them in Jesus Christ.” In other words, the law’s function is to kill us and drive us to the life-giving power of the gospel.
This is why the reformers insisted that we distinguish properly between the law and the gospel. They believed that God’s law was not to be preached so that it will make people better. Rather its role is primarily to “expose sin for what it is—the failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things.” (Mattes) The law is powerless in and of itself to create that which it demands. It is the gospel that is the “power of God for salvation.” (Romans 1:16)
So as we begin what will be the Year of Personal Discipleship in the Diocese and the Church of the Good Shepherd, we start with this series entitled “Perfect Ten.” We will come to see that the law of God demands perfection of us. And when we see it for what it truly is, it will point us clearly to the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ is our only hope. For true discipleship is not the practice of self-improvement, getting better and better, but about growing towards a life oriented to repentance and faith, death and resurrection. And in this, we see the paradoxical nature of growth in Christian faith: to grow means to stay at the beginning. The great reformer Martin Luther modelled this. “Although I’m indeed an old doctor,” he said, “I never move on from the childish doctrine of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. I still daily learn and pray them with my little Hans and my little Lena.” This attitude must be what Jesus meant when he called us to child-like faith. For “to such belongs the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)