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Words from the Fire
Hearing the Voice of God in the Ten Commandments
By R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2009 R. Albert Mohler Jr.
All rights reserved.
No Other God, No Other Voice
Why should we turn to the Old Testament? Why should we focus on the Ten Commandments? Romans 15:4 answers the question: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." These things written in former days were written for the instruction of the church, that through the Scriptures we might have hope.
To live in this day is to live in an antinomian age, an age that is "against all law." Western society is addicted to minimal law and maximum flexibility. So, when we look at this text and visualize this people standing before this mountain, and when we think about what took place here in the life of Israel as they heard the Lord God deliver His own commands and heard Moses teach them concerning these commands—all this seems so distant and far off.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AND MODERN SOCIETY
This mountain, known as Sinai, also as Horeb, seems almost covered by the clouds of the past, even as the mountain itself was on this day covered in smoke and in fire and thunder. The God whom most persons acknowledge insofar as they acknowledge any God is not in the main a divine legislator. He is not a lawgiver, not someone they fear lest they break His command. The God who spoke is now dismissed by the millions, by the "enlightened" ones, by the intellectual elite, as a sky god of ancient and now overcome superstition. Antinomian to the core, modern society resists the very notion of a binding authority. After all, who can tell us what we must and must not do? Who can tell us how we are to live? Who can tell us whom we are to serve?
And then you turn on the television or look at the newspaper or listen to the Supreme Court and hear controversies over the Ten Commandments. Should they or should they not be posted in public places? The U.S. Supreme Court seems itself to be double-minded on the issue, ruling recently that the posting of the Decalogue in Kentucky was illicit, whereas in Texas it was lawful. Same words, different placement, different context, different ruling, no obvious logic. I will defend the constitutionality of posting the Ten Commandments in a public place. But I find it rather perplexing that many of those who seem most ardently committed to the posting of the Ten Commandments can neither recite them nor honestly affirm that they have taught them to their own children.
So, we first must admit that in our day the Ten Commandments seem to serve something of a symbolic role. We know how many there are, we're just not sure what they are. The amazing thing is that the God who is, has spoken. What people, what nation has heard the voice of the Lord speaking from the fire and yet survived? This nation has. This nation Israel heard the Word of the Lord, received these Ten Words, and survived.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AND THE CHRISTIAN
How are we as Christians to understand the Ten Commandments? What is our relationship to this text? What binding authority do these words have upon us? Is there continuity or discontinuity? How are we to understand the operation of the Mosaic covenant in distinction to the covenant of Christ? Is this thus binding upon us, or is it nonbinding? We know what these words meant for Israel, but what do they mean for the church?
Jonathan Edwards acknowledged the difficulty. He said this: "There is perhaps no part of divinity intended with so much intricacy and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispositions of Moses and Christ." I want to acknowledge this perplexity, but I want to suggest that the issue is actually less difficult than it may appear. Those who would most ardently stress continuity have to recognize a difference between Israel under the law and the church under the covenant of grace. Those who would most ardently argue for discontinuity have to acknowledge that the law of Christ recapitulates and fulfills and extends the law of Moses, in a different way, in a different context, with a different sense of binding address. Yet in the New Testament, nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated. There is no way fully to resolve this issue.
THE LAW AND GRACE: BEYOND SACRIFICE
It is very important that we understand the distinction between law and grace. But in understanding this distinction, we do not celebrate a lawless grace any more than looking to the Old Testament we should see a graceless law. There is grace in the law. Israel, in hearing the Word of the Lord and receiving these words, received grace! And if we do not understand that, we slander both the Old Testament and the God who spoke to Israel at Horeb.
Just imagine for a moment the grace that is in the law. First, the grace present in the law is in the revelation of what God requires of His people. How? It is a specific knowledge and not confusion. As Israel entered the land of promise, it would be surrounded by people who were grotesquely confused about what God would demand of His people. The confusion was rampant. Is God primarily a God of power who demands a worship that would exercise that kind of power? Is He like Baal? Is He a male deity of fertility and of power whose voice is understood to speak in the thunder? Does the one true and living God demand human blood to appease Him, as the prophets of Baal believed, slicing open their bodies till blood ran down into the dirt (1 Kings 18:26–29)?
Canaanite followers of the Asherah and Ashteroth, female fertility deities, surrounded Israel. Primarily one deity in different forms with different idols, the worship of these deities was laced with sexual and orgiastic confusion. Such perversity explains why God warned Israel to stay away from what happened under the sacred groves of evergreen trees where ritualized prostitution to these idols took place. Is that what Israel was to do?
Perhaps the most frightening religious confusion among the nations surrounding Israel was the worship of the god Molech, a god defined in terms of a holiness and anger that required innocent humans to be sacrificed for human guilt. Thus, infants and children up to about the age of two were sacrificed, burned alive on the altar of a lifeless idol. A few years ago, in extending the runway at the Damascus Airport, workers found a pit of burned infant bones, dating back to the time of the Canaanites. These were little skeletons of babies up to about age two, their bodies broken and burned to Molech.
We see then that Israel received such grace at Sinai—grace from the loving and holy God who said, "This is what I require of My people. This is who I am, and this is what My people will look like. Don't slice your bodies. Don't pervert your souls. Don't sacrifice your children. Pay heed to these commandments."
In the restraining power of the law there is grace. We should live every day thankful that God has given this law, written into the cosmos itself and also in His spoken Word (specifically the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible). We should be unspeakably thankful for the restraining power of the Law upon the human heart.
THE LAW AND GRACE: THE LAW'S REQUIREMENT FULFILLED IN JESUS
The church also has to look at the written Law as grace in a very different sense, and that is in a pattern of expectation and fulfillment. The Law kills us—it indicts us. As the apostle Paul says, "I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet'" (Romans 7:7). But now we know, and knowing this, we must be saved. Who can do this but Jesus Christ? Yes, the Law hurts—even kills—but the Law points to Christ.
There is also grace in the Law, and in the keeping of it. As the Lord God told His people, "For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off" (Deuteronomy 30:11). And, as the message is written into the warp and the woof of the Old Testament, keeping this law leads to prosperity, to longevity, and to happiness.
In looking at this law and looking at the gospel, we understand that there are two different covenants, but one redeeming God, who is constant. We are told that the Law was made necessary by sin. Before the fall, Adam and Eve needed no Ten Commandments. There, the law was perfectly written on the heart and perfectly understood. Before the fall, there was no need for the restraining and teaching powers of the law. But after the fall, we desperately need legislation—written laws that can be known.
Even before the Lord gave these Ten Words, there was law. We read about Old Testament patriarchs—men like Abraham and Enoch—men who pleased God. But they didn't please God simply by thinking themselves to be pleasing to God. Rather, they pleased God because their lives comported with that which God commanded. They were not perfect, but they were shaped by a law they understood. As Paul writes in Romans 1, it is a law to which we are all accountable.
Back at the mountain, through the prophet Moses, we confront this grace and revelation of the speaking God who gives these Ten Words. What drama there is—smoke, mountain, lightning, cloud, noise. We cannot sever this text from its canonical context. We dare not take it out of its placement in covenantal history nor out of the narrative in which it is placed. These are not just ten abstract commandments. These are ten words of grace and law addressed to God's elect nation, Israel. We have to read the Ten Commandments remembering the smoke upon the mountain that was shaking. We have to remember even the fear of Israel that resulted from knowing that God had spoken to them at all, much less in the form of these specific words. God revealed Himself in the most personal terms.
But then, we contrast this with the radically new covenant, the new law of Christ, and the new heart through the work of Christ. This is the law perfectly fulfilled in Christ and in His accomplished work. We are now no longer under the law of Moses. But that does not mean that we are no longer taught by the Law.
The apostle John wrote, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Christ too was a legislator, declaring His own very clear legislation in the Sermon on the Mount. You are familiar with the formula, "You have heard it said ..., but I say to you." In those words is fulfillment.
Jesus does not lessen the force of the Law; He heightens it, taking it from mere exteriority into interiority. Murder is rooted in anger, and adultery is rooted in lust. As Christians, we speak of being under the law of Christ, under the new covenant, under the law that is given by Christ and to Christ's people.
THE LAW'S ROLE AS TEACHER
So, how are Christ's people to understand the Old Testament law? The Reformers famously debated whether there are two or three uses of the Law. First, both Luther and Calvin accepted the pedagogical use of the Law—it teaches us our sin. We come to know that we have sinned against a holy God, a fact we desperately need to know. Second, the Law has a civil or political use. The divine law underlies and under girds all political law. It is a law that is revealed in nature, although our sinfulness prevents us from perfectly perceiving it in nature. This law is written in the conscience, but as Paul says in Romans 2, our fallen conscience is an inadequate moral instrument.
Those first two uses of the Law were well understood, but it is the third use—the didactic use of the Law—that became an issue of debate between the followers of Luther and Calvin. The didactic use of the Law asks the question—does the Law now teach us? That is, does the Law now teach Christians? Are we to look to the Old Testament in order to see a pattern for godliness, which is to be replicated in us? And the answer has to be, in some form, yes. Calvin clearly affirmed this third use of the Law, and Luther denied it. But as any reading of Luther—his works, sermons, and even his catechisms will indicate, he denied it but he still practiced it. In teaching his children, he taught them the Ten Commandments. In preaching, he preached the Ten Commandments. So, whether or not you want to refer to it as the didactic use of the Law, we know that this law still speaks to us in a pattern that is to encourage us, even as Paul said in Romans 15:4.
In Christ, we who have been the recipients of this new covenant are able to fulfill the Law in a way that Israel was not. That is not because of who we are; it is because of who Christ is. It is not because of our faithfulness, it is because of Christ's faithfulness. So we read the Old Testament law, and the covenant of Moses, and the Ten Commandments all as a word given to God's elect and chosen nation Israel, even as they prepared to enter the Land of Promise.
But the Law is also for our good. It is not that we have no law, for we are under the law of Christ. The last thing we need is an antinomian church in the midst of an antinomian age. We look back to read these texts in order that the Holy Spirit would apply these words to our heart. We hear the binding address of these words, even as we turn to the New Testament to discern how to apply these things in our own times and in our own lives. On the other hand, the church has often been seduced by legalism and moralism. We must not confuse the gospel with any idea that the law can save us, or that our mission is to see lost persons trust in their moralism.
Exodus 20:1 reminds us, "And God spoke all these words." The divine origin and authorship of the Ten Commandments is paramount. This is not Israel's legislation. The Ten Commandments are not the product of human creativity or a legislative assembly. There is no conference committee at Horeb and Sinai. There is no filibuster, and there is no bill-signing ceremony in the Rose Garden. This is God speaking to His people. There is no negotiation here. This is divine address—"And God spoke all these words."
It is so odd to modern and postmodern minds that we claim a divine sanction for law. The prevailing secular mind-set says that law is simply a product of human experience codified in legislative form. It is just how we learned to live with each other. There is no absolute or transcendent ought. There merely is a phenomenological is.
But Israel knows something very different. Because God spoke these words, these are not just ten words, these are the Ten Words. Broadcaster Ted Koppel, speaking at Duke University's commencement ceremony several years ago, reminded the students that the Ten Commandments are not God's "ten ethical suggestions." This is law. It is command.
And the God who reveals this law also reveals Himself: "I am the Lord your God." First person intimacy. First person authority. He uses the revealed name "I AM." This is a personal and saving Word, identified by the God who situates His own law in His redeeming purpose. Look carefully at the text. "I am the Lord your God." Which God? Who is this God? "Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2)."
We must see Christ here as well. We see into the future the Christ who will lead His people out of bondage. Not out of bondage to Pharaoh, but out of bondage to sin. God's constant redeeming purpose is reflected here even in the giving of the law. This is the God who brought Israel out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and thus the first command, "You shall have no other gods before me."
THE FIRST COMMANDMENT ASSERTS MONOTHEISM
What does all this mean? First, it means there is one God and only one God. This command begins with the assertion of theism, and not just theism—monotheism. God automatically and necessarily reveals Himself over against the false gods of that day and age, and any other.
A quick survey of modern theology reveals the false gods of our day, not just within the various paganisms, world religions, and forms of blindness, but even inside what is considered the world of Christian theology. All these false gods fall far short of the biblical witness. There is the well-intended deity of American popular culture and the lighter-than-air, dehydrated, just-add-water god of popular imagination. As one author says, this is the "break glass in case of emergency deity." The god of modern theology is finite in so many ways. He is not omnipotent, he is just more powerful than we are. He is not omniscient; he just knows everything that currently may be known—more knowledge than we have. By stark contrast, the infinite God of the Bible is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, self-existent, self-revealing, self-defining, sovereign, and holy. Indeed, the list truly is itself infinite.
John Calvin wrote well when he said that there is a semenas divinitas, a seed of divinity, within the human being. This interior knowledge forms part of our conscience and our constitution, being ourselves made in the image of God. It cries out for some object of worship, for we will worship some deity. The only question is—what or whom will we worship? In his book Idols for Destruction, Herbert Schlossberg says this: "Western society in turning away from the Christian faith has turned to other things." He points out this fact that is often missed—this is not a turning from, it is a turning to! This process is commonly called secularization, but that only covers the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that some other deity has taken His place. It is inevitably so.
Excerpted from Words from the Fire by R. Albert Mohler Jr.. Copyright © 2009 R. Albert Mohler Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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