Theology 101

Ten Quick Thoughts on the Ten Commandments for Personal and Public Life

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Throughout history, the Ten Commandments have been used as a framework for expounding all of our ethical responsibilities. For instance, John Calvin develops a substantial section of his Institutes of the Christian Religion by using this outline. While a full exposition of the Ten Commandments is impossible in a short blog post, a thought or two on each mandate may help readers as they face their personal and public lives.

1. Placing Priority 

The command to have “no other gods” provides prophetic resistance to anything that would make itself into a god, such as the totalitarian state.

2. Saying No

The command of “no idols” means Christians must have no physical or mental images that they worship. They must resist idols and uphold the truth. At the same time, tolerance is a Christian invention. It follows that we must defend both legal and social tolerance.

With regard to legal tolerance, leaders cannot and should not coerce religious belief. Freedom of religion is America’s first freedom. Christians should defend the rights of people to believe and practice any religion, regardless of whether that belief system teaches the truth.

Social tolerance is just as important. Jesus calls us to love not only our neighbors but everyone—up to and including our enemies. Christ’s love has a centrifugal force that thrusts us over the deepest divides of race, ethnicity, religion, and moral beliefs.

Tolerating others’ beliefs both legally and socially does not mean that we agree with those beliefs, or that differences do not matter. There are times we must take a stand. There are times when Christians must say “no” to the world and proclaim Christ’s truth to a fallen culture.

3. Complete Conviction

The command to not take the Lord’s name in vain means we should not take God’s name in vain with respect to his worship, in language, in oaths, or in promises. Perhaps the worst sin is not profanity, but lip service. Luther once said that God is sometimes more pleased with the curses of the wicked than the “hallelujahs” of the pious.

4. Time

To “remember the Sabbath” means we must set aside time for our Lord for worship, fellowship, and devotion. When one’s output exceeds his input, it leads to his downfall. Christians must take the time to renew themselves and invest in the church, weak as it may be. There will be no rebuilding of the culture without the church.

5. Respect for Inheritance, Heritage and Succession

To “honor your father and mother”  includes letting those who come behind us find us faithful. C.S. Lewis argued we need to let the breezes of the centuries blow through our minds, specifically by reading one old book for every new one, lest we become captive to the latest fashion of our time. That which is most relevant is that which is most timeless and eternal.

6. Dignity

“You shall not murder.” This is a big one. The image of God is the only adequate basis on which murder can be condemned. C.S. Lewis held that there are no ordinary people—”you have never met a mere mortal.” People dare not get used to the taking of life lightly. With this in mind, Christians must help the poor not only because God commands it, but because people are made in the image of God. We want to give the poor an opportunity to flourish.

7. Fidelity

“You shall not commit adultery.” Sexual beauty comes not by repression, nor by unlimited expression, but by discipline. Marriage and family are at the core of society. If they fail, society will become poorer economically and spiritually.

8. Ownership

“You shall not steal.” Stealing is evil because private property and ownership are good. God wants everyone to have the joy of sitting under their own vine and fig tree. The best protection for our economy is the rule of law, which guards private property and character that allows trust to form between people.

9. Veracity

“You shall not bear false witness.” In today’s culture, truth is replaced by rhetoric and spin. Individuals are to be truthful because God is truthful. Above all, Christians must uphold the veracity of God’s Word.

10. Desire Versus Greed

“You shall not covet.” One can condemn greed and envy without prohibiting a healthy desire for relationships and things. “An argument against abuse is not an argument against use,” says an ancient proverb. Justly decrying greed does not negate the value of serving people through business and free markets. You can have one without the other. One can distinguish the Fall from Creation.

My purpose in writing about this today is that one can learn a great deal from studying biblical law. The moral law still applies to us today and provides a basis for formulating and evaluating political laws. The judicial law, while no longer binding, can at least supply principles that can be guidelines for thinking through issues in today’s society. Biblical law also provides us with guidance for our work and for our business transactions, exhorting us to seek success without greed and to treat others with dignity and honesty.

People certainly are not saved by obedience to the law; rather, Christ extends grace to those who believe on him. Yet though the law is not a means of salvation, it can still establish principles for each individual’s conscience, enabling him to make wise ethical decisions in personal and public life. Biblical law can help Christians in their daily work and as they engage the world around them.

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