Read an Excerpt
The Law of Perfect Freedom
Relating to God and Others Through the Ten Commandments
By Michael S. Horton
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1993 Michael S. Horton
All rights reserved.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
Writing this book has been something like a Midwestern farmer drawing a map of downtown Manhattan—I feel not a little like the wrong person for the job. Nevertheless, this has been a burden of mine for some time, not because I think I'm particularly good at following the course we will discover in the following chapters, but because I hear two voices calling us to the task.
First, God's voice is clear and unmistakable in the pages of Scripture. Having redeemed us from both the guilt and bondage of our sins, God now calls us to glorify and enjoy Him forever, beginning now, beginning here. But there is a second voice that makes a recovery of the Ten Commandments vital for our time. It is the voice of our neighbors: secular, not particularly given to religious justifications for what they do, but nevertheless searching for something that gives weight to their actions. Newsweek referred to the question over values as "a deep, vexing national anxiety ... about the nagging sense that unlimited personal freedom and rampaging materialism yield only greater hungers and lonelier nights." Furthermore, "the acting out has been bipartisan. Self-actualizing liberals have been obsessed with personal freedom to the point of self-immolation; predatory conservatives have been obsessed with commercial freedom to the point of pillage." One thing is clear, according to Newsweek's Joe Klein: "Both these indulgences have run their course. The 30-year spree has caused a monster hang-over. There is a yearning for something more than the standard political analgesics." The real question is whether evangelical Christians are, generally speaking, prepared for the larger spiritual issues or whether they will simply continue to align themselves with short-sighted, "standard political analgesics."
As we approach Christianity's third millennium, the mood of secular culture is clearly shifting from a disregard for religious, spiritual, and moral direction to a renewed willingness to listen. Of course, this means that they will listen to almost anyone and everyone, as the popularity of new-age mysticism, the mushrooming of Islam, and an expanding universalistic sentiment demonstrate. But, as demonstrated by the leading pollsters, there is one thing our secular neighbors will not put up with any longer, and that is what one writer called "The Bible Belt Inquisition." There must be answers, intelligently argued, defending the basis of core beliefs, not just assertions, slogans, and the rhetoric of power games. Although the central point of Christianity is not morality or direction in life (contrary to what most people expect religion to be about), the transcendent beliefs out of which the Christian life grows and matures, however feebly, give purpose, direction, and meaning to life that cannot be matched by mere sentiment and secular whim. Nor can it be matched by platitudes from the left-wing or from right-wing ideology, with occasional proof-texting from Scripture. What we really need is a massive reeducation in the basics. And the world is more ready for this now than it was just five years ago.
A striking example of this openness is an essay by Time magazine's former editor-in-chief and ambassador to Austria, Henry Grunwald:
We are beset by a whole range of discontents and confusions. For a great many, the dunghill has become a natural habitat. Derain and other observers of depravity would, in fact, be stunned by the chaos of manners and speech, by the hellish ubiquity of crime and the easy—one might almost say the democratic—availability of drugs; by the new varieties of decadence—rock songs about rape and suicide, pornography at the corner newsstand, commercials for S&M clubs on your friendly cable channel, not to mention telephone sex.... We are witnessing the end, or at least the decline, of an age of unbelief and beginning what may be a new age of faith.... We will need a new sense of drive, less emphasis on "rights" and more on responsibility—in short, we must create a new psychological climate.
Of course, it was our own evangelical forebears—especially Luther and Calvin—who emphasized responsibilities over rights, the latter being the modern obsession. The Bible, particularly the Ten Commandments, calls us to discover our obligations to God and to our neighbor and society. It calls the people of God to their posts in society, not as a special interest group demanding its rights alongside everyone else, but as called-out men and women who have a heavy sense of moral duty—not to save their own souls, for that is by grace apart from works, but to bring glory and honor to that gracious King. What Grunwald calls for in terms of "a new psychological climate," where responsibilities are emphasized over rights, was championed earlier in our history as evangelical Christians. How ironic that, in order to be relevant and on the cutting edge, we must retrieve beliefs from the past. Grunwald concludes:
One of the most remarkable things about the 20th century, more than technological progress and physical violence, has been the deconstruction of man (and woman). We are seeing a reaction to that phenomenon. Our view of man obviously depends on our view of God. The Age of Reason exalted humankind but still admitted God as a sort of supreme philosopher-king or chairman of the board who ultimately presided over the glories achieved by reason and science. The humanist 19th century voted him out. It increasingly saw reason and science irreconcilably opposed to religion, which would fade away. Secular humanism (a respectable term even though it became a right-wing swearword) stubbornly insisted that morality need not be based on the supernatural. But it gradually became clear that ethics without the sanction of some higher authority simply were not compelling. The ultimate irony, or perhaps tragedy, is that secularism has not led to humanism. We have gradually dissolved—deconstructed—the human being into a bundle of reflexes, impulses, neuroses, nerve endings. The great religious heresy used to be making man the measure of all things; but we have come close to making man the measure of nothing. The mainstream churches have tried in various ways to adapt themselves to a secular age.... The major Protestant denominations also increasingly emphasized social activism and tried to dilute dogma to accommodate 20th-century rationality and diversity.
But none of these reforms [is] arresting the sharp decline of the mainstream churches. Why not? The answer seems to be that while orthodox religion can be stifling, liberal religion can be empty. Many people seem to want a faith that is rigorous and demanding.
Respected social commentators, such as Thomas Molnar, are increasingly open to intelligent religious options. Molnar explains:
The Ten Commandments, and many other biblical texts, used to be for me pious, nondescript, and rather gratuitous statements. That was youth. With maturity and age, they began to reveal (the right word) an immeasurable depth of wisdom, whose exploration occupied the life of a Pascal and a Chesterton. Our contemporary "culture" (various paganisms, abortion/euthanasia, inclusive language, overall politization) has demoted those texts to the level of bored clichés or outright mystifications. Hence the need to focus on them again.
But there is also a renewed interest in transcendent answers to real-life problems from the popular culture. Commenting on the 1992 tour of the band U2, Rolling Stone magazine concluded: "Their message? Thou shalt not worship false idols, but who else is there?"
So, Grunwald concludes, "Where will all this lead? Just possibly, to a real new age of faith. Not a new universal religion, or the return of a medieval sort of Christianity overarching all of society—nor, one hopes, the resurgence of what might be called the Bible Belt Inquisition. But we may be heading into an age when faith will again be taken seriously, and when it will again play a major part in our existence."
Tom Wolfe suggested that ours is not an age that is likely to produce great heroes. But biblical faith has always created heroes: nurses who devoted their lives to caring for the sick, parents who sacrificed for their children's education, businesspeople who know how to create wealth and use it for the benefit of the community, children who took care of their parents in their old age, employers who took care of their workers, and employees who threw in that extra bit to help the company become successful, people who helped their neighbor fix his roof. For the sake of our searching neighbors, for our own sake and, above all, for God's sake, let's prove Grunwald right and Wolfe wrong.
GOD'S WILL FOR YOUR LIFE
Growing up in the church, I can remember the anxiety I used to have over God's will for my life. Whom shall I date? Where does God want me to go to college? With a horror at the possibility of missing out on God's best ("plan A") for my life, I sought God's will earnestly, not knowing exactly what it would sound or look like once I discovered "it." Since then, my basic understanding of what it means to discover God's will has been transformed. Let me explain briefly what I mean.
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 29:29). This verse distinguishes two categories: "secret things" and "revealed things." It is fairly easy to determine what are the "revealed things": the Ten Commandments are a good example. But what happens when we get to questions about marriage and education, whether we should pursue this calling or relocate to that city? Surely we would search our Bible concordance in vain to find a text informing us of God's will for our life in these areas. That does not mean, of course, that God has not determined our future down to its most trivial details; what it does mean is that He has not decided to let us in on them. If God really is in charge, there is no "perfect will" we step in or out of, depending on how good we are at reading tea leaves or discerning "signs" of God's leading. He even works sin, suffering, and evil out to our good (Romans 8:28), so that everything is a part of His plan to bring Himself glory.
What this does for those burdened with anxiety over knowing God's will is amazing. It places our search for God's will, not in the subjective hunches we often attribute to the Holy Spirit, but in the revealed will of God. We may not get an advance copy of God's game plan as to the people, places, occupations, and moves He has in our future, but we already have more than we seem to have digested in God's revealed Word concerning the direction of our lives as Christians. To those seeking God's will for their life, the prophet Micah replies, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
But this search for God's revealed will for our lives has not only been interrupted by the search for His secret will or plan, but by other factors as well, which we shall consider briefly.
According to George Gallup, "Americans revere the Bible—but by and large, they don't read it. And because they don't read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates." In fact, although four out of five Americans believe the Bible is "the literal or inspired word of God," most of them cannot recall the Ten Commandments. "Three-quarters of Americans said they make at least some effort to follow Jesus' example," Gallup reports, but they evidently don't have the slightest idea of what that example consists. Six in ten cited a personal relationship with Jesus Christ of some sort, but this evidently is a relationship of convenience, since they do not see it in terms of obligation.
The authors of The Day America Told The Truth have this to say:
It's the wild, wild West all over again in America, but it's wilder and woollier this time. You are the law in this country. Who says so? You do, pardner.... There is absolutely no moral consensus at all in the 1990s. Everyone is making up their [sic] own personal moral codes—their own Ten Commandments. Here are ten extraordinary commandments for the 1990s. These are real commandments, the rules that many people actually live by.
1. I don't see the point in observing the Sabbath (77 percent).
2. I will steal from those who won't really miss it (74 percent).
3. I will lie when it suits me, so long as it doesn't cause any real damage (64 percent).
4. I will drink and drive if I feel that I can handle it. I know my limit (56 percent).
5. I will cheat on my spouse—after all, given the chance, he or she will do the same (53 percent).
6. I will procrastinate at work and do absolutely nothing about one full day in every five. It's standard operating procedure (50 percent).
7. I will use recreational drugs (41 percent)
8. I will cheat on my taxes—to a point (30 percent)
9. I will put my lover at risk of disease. I sleep around a bit, but who doesn't (31 percent)?
10. Technically, I may have committed date rape, but I know that she wanted it (20 percent have been date-raped).
In spite of the fact that nearly all Americans say they believe in God, "the overwhelming majority of people (93 percent) said that they—and nobody else—determine what is and what is not moral in their lives. They base their decisions on their own experience, even on their daily whims."
Again and again, in survey after survey, Christians and non-Christians respond in almost identical ways when questions are raised concerning greed, hedonism, and racism. Clearly, something is rotten in our own backyard. We do not even seem to know right from wrong anymore, even as Christians. This ought to make us wonder what we are getting in our churches and in our Christian homes. That is why, throughout this book, we will make a conscious effort to see these commandments not merely as stones to throw at secular society, but as a witness to our unfaithful record at the end of the twentieth century. We need to relearn some things that we may have taken for granted. Before we go off on moral crusades, aligning ourselves with the secular Left or the secular Right, we would be well-advised to settle again in our minds what it is that God requires of us—and that is the exciting rediscovery awaiting us in the Ten Commandments.
Ambiguity About the Old Testament
Many of us were raised not knowing what to do with that first half of our Bible. The idea was, Israel in the Old Testament was under the law and Christians in the New Testament are under grace. This means that the Old Testament equals works-righteousness and the New Testament equals the gospel of grace.
However, this is out of keeping with the biblical text on a number of points. First, God made one covenant with Abraham. It was an unconditional gift of eternal life to him and to all of his spiritual descendants. Justified by grace alone through faith alone, just like any believer today, Abraham became the spiritual father of all who trusted in Christ, including us (Galatians 3:7). In fact, "[Not] because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Romans 9:7–8). Jesus made clear to the Jews of His day that they were not simply children of Abraham by racial descent. In fact, the gospels make plain that because they rejected the promise (i.e., the gospel), the Jews ceased to be children of Abraham (Matthew 3:9). The writer to the Hebrews cautions early Christians against repeating the folly of the Israelites in the wilderness, who also "had the gospel preached to [them,] ... but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard it did not combine it with faith" (Hebrews 4:2, italics added).
Therefore, "law" does not equal "Old Testament," while "grace" or "gospel" equals the New Testament. "Law" refers to any command, from Genesis to Revelation. "Gospel" refers to any place in either testament where the promise of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is found. The law tells us what we ought to do, and this leads us to despair of meeting God's standard. Then the gospel tells us what God has done for us already in Christ, meeting the standard as our substitute and taking our punishment on Himself so that we could be regarded as righteous.
Seen in this light, the believer today ought to be as interested in the Old Testament as in the New. Although the gospel is more clearly articulated in the New Testament, surely there is no loss of gospel imagery in God's clothing of Adam and Eve Himself with skins from an animal He Himself sacrificed, or in Abraham's offering of Isaac, or in the Exodus from Egypt, and in the myriad of other examples of God's rescuing grace, in spite of the depravity of His people. Therefore, the Old testament still speaks to us today. When God confirms His promise (the gospel) to Jacob, that is for us today. When God commands Israel from Mt. Sinai, these commandments are for us as well.
Excerpted from The Law of Perfect Freedom by Michael S. Horton. Copyright © 1993 Michael S. Horton. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.