Keeping the Ten Commandments

Keeping the Ten Commandments

by J. I. Packer


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


J. I. Packer explodes common misconceptions about the Ten Commandments and gives readers God's blueprint for relational, spiritual, and societal well-being.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581349832
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 02/28/2008
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,021,991
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

J. I. Packer (1926–2020) served as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He authored numerous books, including the classic best seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.

Read an Excerpt


The Way to Life

You know the commandments," said Jesus (Mark 10:19). He was talking to a young man (Matthew 19:20) who was wealthy (v. 22) and a ruler (Luke 18:18), evidently a young hopeful among Jewish politicians who had quickly, as we say, got ahead. He was glib, impulsive, pushy, and superficial, with, it seems, a habit of dramatizing himself in public. We might easily dismiss him as a bumptious show-off. Yet according to his lights he was serious and sincere, at least in intention, and Jesus, heart-reader extraordinaire, felt real affection for him (Mark 10:21).

This young man had run up to Jesus, probably elbowing his way through a crowd, dropped to his knees before him, addressed him formally and honorifically as "Good Teacher" (Mark 10:17) and asked him, "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?" (Matthew 19:16). The form of the question showed that he saw himself as a special person, different from the rank and file and entitled therefore to a special personal agenda. Jesus, evidently thinking that his interrogator's youthful mouth was outrunning his youthful mind, countered at once with two questions of his own, both designed to make the speaker think about what he had just said. "Why do you call me good? Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good — God" (Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:18). As if to say, "Surely you don't think I'm God — or do you? (You should, for I am.) And surely you don't think you can ever do anything that is good without qualification — or do you? (You shouldn't, for you can't — no one can — that's why you can only live by being constantly forgiven)." Having fired these two piercing verbal arrows, he turned to the young man's inquiry.

"You know the commandments," Jesus began (Mark 10:19), as one stating a fact, and as if to say, here is where everything starts.

"Which ones?" the young man asked (Matthew 19:18). Maybe conceit led him to think this was a sharp question, but actually it was a naive and needless one, for every Jewish boy was taught in the synagogue school to memorize the Ten Commandments — that is, the Decalogue — which God had inscribed on stone tablets for Israel at Sinai. Jesus took the question in stride, citing commandments five to nine — no murder, no adultery, no theft, no lies, no disrespect to parents — along with what elsewhere he called the second great commandment, active neighbor-love (Mark 10:19; Matthew 19:18–19). Then he paused, waiting to see what the young man's response would be.

And here I pause to ask my readers: do you know the Ten Commandments? My guess is that if you are over forty you do, but if you are under forty you don't. About half a century ago churches generally ceased teaching the Commandments, either from the pulpit or in Sunday school or anywhere else. I do not mean that none of the moral and spiritual principles of the Decalogue were taught in any way at all (though it is beyond dispute that churches that have remained strong on the gospel have been comparatively week on ethics). I mean only that as a unified code of conduct and a grid for behavior the Decalogue dropped out. So I ask: could you repeat the Ten Commandments from memory? Were you ever made to memorize them, as long ago I was, and as the rich young ruler had been? I hope this little book will help you get up to speed at this point. But back now to the rich young ruler.

"All these I have kept from my youth," said he (Mark 10:20) — and clearly he thought he had. But, like so many, he was living on the surface and was largely out of touch with what was going on inside him. He had not yet become aware that God's law condemns not only lawless acts but also lawless desires and dreams and fantasies of law-breaking. Nor had he realized that real neighbor-love will not depend on whether one likes one's neighbor or not, and grows out of humility and gratitude Godward, and must enlist the imagination and become purposeful and passionate up to the limits of what one is capable of. Anything less falls short of keeping the Commandments as God's servants are all called to do. Jesus himself is in fact the embodiment of the Ten Commandments, and living below the standard of service that his life sets is, quite simply, falling short in neighbor-love. But the ruler had not yet grasped all this, and his claim to have kept all the commandments that Jesus mentioned reveals his ignorance both of real law-keeping and of his own real, wayward self. Here are truths that bear on our lives, no less than they did on that of Jesus' questioner.

"What do I still lack?" asked the ruler (Matthew 19:20). Jesus gave him a double-barreled answer. He must dispose of his wealth that was the idol currently holding his heart captive ("sell what you possess and give to the poor," v. 21), and he must follow Jesus in the most literal sense, not just learning to live by his teaching but actually joining the little band of disciples (followers!) who walked with him in his itinerant ministry, owning nothing and depending on others' generosity for each day's food and each night's shelter ("come, follow me," v. 21).

This would mean for the young plutocrat a totally new way of life externally, and by cleaving to Jesus he would experience change inwardly as well, for he would find his heart reoriented in love and loyalty to Jesus and the Father, and then among other things to the Ten Commandments them-selves, now viewed as a gratitude program, a prescription for honoring, pleasing, and glorifying God, a highway to the holy joy of obedience. Thus the reality of repentance, faith, and regeneration (new birth) would be played out in his ex-rich, post-political new life.

Sadly, this did not happen. "When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions" (Matthew 19:22). He could not contemplate so radical a change; so he ended up forfeiting the eternal life that he had thought he was seeking.

Living the Ten Commandments is the theme of this book, and the truth we must learn from the story of the rich young ruler is that only through life-wide repenting for one's self-serving lifestyle to date and through humbly receiving and trusting Jesus Christ as one's living Lord and Savior and through heart-changing regeneration by the Holy Spirit will Commandment-keeping ever pass beyond formal outward role-play to become the substantial concern of one's inward life, stemming from a truly God-fearing, God-honoring heart. We need to be very clear on this before we begin exploring the values, visions, and virtues that living the Commandments involves. The only way into such a life is the way of faith and repentance, according to the New Testament gospel. Let us never forget that.


A comparative study:

• Compare the three parallel accounts of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30), and note Jesus' comments on wealth and salvation.


• Do you think Christ calls all rich persons to abandon their wealth as a condition of discipleship? If not, what should their attitude toward their wealth be?

• Do you think that people today deceive themselves as to whether they are keeping Gods Commandments or not?

• What does following Jesus require of us today? Should more stress be placed on keeping the Commandments or not?


Blueprint for Behavior

Life means relationships — with God, men, and things. Get your relationships right, and life is joy, but it is a burden otherwise. It is natural to love life, and against nature to want it to stop; yet today, as when Christianity was born, many experience life as such a meaningless misery that their thoughts turn seriously to suicide. What has gone wrong? Probably relationships. Though depression may have physical roots and yield to physical treatment, disordered relation-ships are usually at least part of the trouble, and for a full cure these have to be put straight.

What does that involve? Social workers know how a lack of meaningful human relations wastes the spirit and try to bring help at this point. That alone, however, is less than half the remedy. True joy comes only through meaningful relations with God, in tasting his love and walking Christ's way. This is the real dolce vita, the life that is genuinely sweet and good.


Now the blueprint for this life was set out for all time in the Ten Commandments that God gave the Jews through Moses on Sinai about thirteen centuries before Christ. Yesterday's Christians saw them as (to quote the title of William Barclay's exposition of them) The Plain Man's Guide to Ethics. They were right. Today's world, even today's church, has largely forgot-ten them (could you recite them?). That is our folly and loss. For here, in nugget form, is the wisdom we need.

Because Scripture calls God's Ten Commandments "law" we assume they are like the law of the land, a formal code of dos and don'ts, restricting personal freedom for the sake of public order. But the comparison is wrong. Torah (Hebrew for "law") means the sort of instruction a good parent gives his child. Proverbs 1:8 and 6:20 actually use torah for parental teaching.

Think of all the wise man's words to his son in Proverbs 1:8–8:36 as addressed to us by our heavenly Father himself (as indeed they are, as in Augustine's true phrase, "what thy Scripture says, thou dost say"). That will give you a right idea of the nature and purpose of God's law. It is there not to thwart self-expression (though it may sometimes feel like that — for children hate discipline!) but to lead us into those ways that are best for us. God's parental law expresses God's parental love.


Some read the Old Testament as so much primitive groping and guesswork, which the New Testament sweeps away. But "God ... spoke by the prophets" (Hebrews 1:1), of whom Moses was the greatest (see Deuteronomy 34:10–12); and his Commandments, given through Moses, set a moral and spiritual standard for living that is not superseded but carries God's authority forever. Note that Jesus' twofold law of love, summarizing the Commandments, comes from Moses' own God-taught elaboration of them (for that is what the Pentateuchal law-codes are). "Love ... your God" is from Deuteronomy 6:5, "love your neighbor" from Leviticus 19:18.

It cannot be too much stressed that Old Testament moral teaching (as distinct from the Old Testament revelation of grace) is not inferior to that of the New Testament, let alone the conventional standards of our time. The barbarities of lawless sex, violence, exploitation, cutthroat business methods, class warfare, disregard for one's family, and the like are sanctioned only by our modern secular society. The supposedly primitive Old Testament, and the 3,000-year-old Commandments in particular, are bulwarks against all these things.

It cannot be too much stressed that Old Testament moral teaching (as distinct from the Old Testament revelation of grace) is not inferior to that of the New Testament, let alone the conventional standards of our time.

But (you say) doesn't this sort of talk set the Old Testament above Christ? Can that be right? Surely teaching that ante-dates him by a millennium and a quarter must be inferior to his? Surely the Commandments are too negative, always and only saying "don't ..."? Surely we must look elsewhere for full Christian standards? Fair queries; but there is a twofold answer.

First, Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17) that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it; that is, to be, and help others to be, all that God in the Commandments had required. What Jesus destroyed was inadequate expositions of the law, not the law itself (Matthew 5:21–48; 15:1–9; etc.). By giving truer expositions, he actually republished the law. The Sermon on the Mount itself consists of themes from the Decalogue developed in a Christian context.

Second, the negative form of the Commandments has positive implications. "Where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded" (Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 99). The negative form was needed at Sinai (as in the West today) to curb current lawlessness that threatened both godliness and national life. But the positive content pointed out by Christ — loving God with all one's powers, and one's neighbor as oneself — is very clearly there, as we shall see.


Christ and the law:

• Matthew 5:17-48; 12:1-14; 15:1-9; 22:34-40

A new life-style for new people:

• Ephesians 4:17-5:14


• Why are relationships so important in our lives, and where does relationship with God fit in?

• What does Packer mean in saying that Jesus "republished the law"?

• The law takes the form of a series of prohibitions; yet it is held to be positive, not negative, in its content. Explain this.


I and You

Of the relationships that make our life, some are personal, some not. A personal relationship is with a personal subject, a "you" who says "I" when addressing us. An impersonal relationship is with a nonpersonal object, a thing, an "it." Our relations with, for instance, cars, houses, ovens, and computers are impersonal, even if we give them pet names; we use them as conveniences, means of expressing ourselves and executing our plans, and rightly so. But to handle persons that way is wrong and indeed destructive, for persons cannot stand being treated as things. Persons have value in themselves and are ends in themselves; they are to be respected as people, not used as pawns.

Putting it positively, persons make claims. They communicate and ask us to communicate back. In truly personal relations each loves, honors, and serves the other, and response is the rule of life. In this fallen world, where all too often you are your god and I am mine, few relationships, even at home and with so-called friends, are personal enough; we alternately use and ignore each other dreadfully. "Nobody treats me as a person; nobody cares for me" is very much a cry of our time, but the problem is as old as mankind.


Now, the Christian's relationship with God the Creator is a personal, "I- you" affair throughout. To him God is not, as he is to some, a cosmic force to harness, an infinite "it" claiming no more from him than the genie of the lamp did from Aladdin. Christians know that God has called them into a relation of mutual love and service, of mutual listening and response, of asking, giving, taking, and sharing on both sides. Christians learn this from watching and listening to God incarnate in the Gospel stories and from noting the words of invitation, command, and promise that God spoke through prophets and apostles. And the twice-stated formula of the Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17; Deuteronomy 5:6–21) makes it particularly plain.

For the Commandments are God's edict to persons he has loved and saved, to whom he speaks in "I-you" terms at each point. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out ... You shall ..." The ten directives, which embody the Creator's intention for human life as such, are here presented as means of maintaining a redeemed relationship already given by grace. And for Christians today, as for the Jews at Sinai, law-keeping (that is, meeting the claims of our God, commandments 1–4, and our neighbor, commandments 5–10) is not an attempt to win God's admiration and put him in our debt, but the form and substance of grateful, personal response to his love.

We have been speaking of our Maker as if he were one person, as Jews, Moslems, and Unitarians suppose him to be; but this is the moment to point out that Christians know the one God to be tripersonal, and know too that the fellowship with the Father and the Son through the Spirit into which they, as saved sinners, are called is to be modeled on the Son's fellowship with the Father, as revealed in his life on earth. Loving obedience, joyful loyalty, and wholehearted devotion to his Father was Jesus' way; this same attitude to both the Father and the Son (and indeed the Spirit, save that we do not deal with the Spirit in the same direct manner) must now be ours. Our love-relationship to the persons of the Godhead is thus to be modeled on a love-relationship within the Godhead itself. No personal bond that any man ever knows is deeper or more demanding than this — or (be it added) has more transforming effect.

Into all human relationships that grow, five elements enter on both sides: accepting, asking, promising, pleasing, and where necessary apologizing. Now when God takes us into his family, he accepts us through Christ's atonement; he asks for the service of our lives; "his precious and very great promises" to us (2 Peter 1:4) guarantee that we shall be protected and provided for; and he commits himself to please us by leading us into the fullness of his joy. (No apologies are ever needed for any of that! It is all great and glorious grace.)


Excerpted from "Keeping the Ten Commandments"
by .
Copyright © 2007 J. I. Packer.
Excerpted by permission of Good News 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.

Table of Contents


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Packer is lucid, often illustrates well, and is orderly. A good brief discussion appears on what would be true for Christianity if Jesus had not risen. Packer also has good reasons Christians can validly believe that Jesus did rise. A number of other fine discussions are helpful, such as what heaven means, Christ's public future coming, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, bodily resurrection, everlasting life, baptism, baptism in the Spirit."
—James E. Rosscup, The Master's Seminary Journal

"Maturity in the spiritual life, like its counterparts in the social and emotional realms, requires conscious effort. Renowned author J. I. Packer gives the benefit of his extended experiences in achieving growth in Christ. Don't expect a book of doctrines that only theologians can understand. Packer clothes doctrine with practical everyday living applications."
—Glen H. Jones, Pulpit Helps

"Packer does an exceptionally fine job of providing simple analyses of profound material. His insights invite further reflection, development, and discussion. The book is worth owning. Anyone who wishes to preach about, discuss, or simply reflect on the 'three great formulae' of the Christian faith and their incorporation into the historic catechisms would be enriched by Packer's Growing in Christ."
—Wilbert M. Van Dyk, Calvin Theological Journal

Customer Reviews