A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 01/19/1997

Exodus 20:1-2

The Unity and Interpretation of the Law: 10 Commandments #3 "Then God spoke all these words, saying, 'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me." INTRODUCTION

We live in an increasingly godless and lawless world. Western civilization is crumbling and barbarism is on the rise. Joy Davidman wrote, "Though previous cultures had struggled upward to the knowledge that justice pleased the gods, it was on the thunderstone of the Tablets that Western Civilization has built its house." The American Declaration of Independence illustrates the truth of her assertion, holding "these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Rights, this document recognized, come from God even as the commandments do. Why do we have a right to life? Because God forbade murder. Why do property rights exist? Because God forbade stealing. Without God--without quite specifically the God who gave the Ten Commandments--rights are not an inalienable reality but only a form of political rhetoric used to deceive the masses and buy their votes. And one could certainly argue that in the current political climate, which despite its lip service to the right-endowing Creator of the Declaration actually grounds itself on a secular foundation, that is exactly what "rights" have become.

Well, Davidman says, the house of western civilization was built on the Ten Commandments. "If the house is tottering today, we can hardly steady it by pulling the foundation out from under." Yet that is precisely the secular approach. Therefore is this series we will try to shore up those foundations. We have seen that the Law is not a means of salvation, but that rightly understood it still reveals the character and the will of God and is the path of blessing. Today I want to cover three final points of introduction before we get into the commandments themselves.

I. THE UNITY OF THE LAW (Ex. 20:1-2, Deut. 6:4-5)

The unity of the Law has two aspects: there is only one Law, and the Law is one. "Hear Oh Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is One!" There is and can be only one law because there is only one God, therefore one Creator who designed creation, and therefore one Lawgiver who determines its laws. In so far as it governs inanimate objects, we call it the law of nature. In so far as it governs the relationships between thoughts and their consequences, we call it the law of Reason. In so far as it governs beings with free will who can chose to obey it or not, we call it the moral law. But it is one Law with one source, the living God.

Our society considers the ultimate crime to be the attempt to "impose" one's morality on someone else. But we cannot impose "our" morality. There is no such thing as "my" morality or "your" morality. There is only morality and immorality, God's :Law or lawlessness, obedience or rebellion. Milton has Satan claim in Paradise Lost that "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." This is the ultimate attempt to create one's own morality. But the mind is not its own place; like every other place, it is God's place, and therefore subject to His Law. Satan's claiming the right to be his own lawgiver is claiming the right to be his own God. Therefore, to accept moral relativism is to accept polytheism. Most moral relativists would be appalled to think what their position thus implies. There cannot be multiple laws unless there are multiple gods. So since there is only one God, there is only one Law, and we are all accountable to it. Therefore we must study it carefully, precisely because we do not have the right to impose our own morality. We want to avoid doing that, not in order to safeguard everyone else's morality, i.e., their claim to godhood, but in order to follow the only morality there is.

The second aspect of the unity of the Law is that the Law is one. James says that if we break it in one point we have broken all of it (James 2:10-11). This also flows inevitably from monotheism, for the Law reflects the mind of the one God. It is not just a list of ten arbitrary and unconnected rules. It is a unified and coherent way of life, as we shall see as we move through it. But for now we need to move on to


The Law has not just a simple unity but an organic unity. It comes to us in what are traditionally called the two Tables. The "First Table of the Law" deals with man's duty to God: to have only the true God as God, to abstain from idolatry, to honor his name, to worship him regularly. Then the "Second Table" concerns man's duty under God to his fellow man: he is to protect his life, his property, his family, his reputation. This is not just the way the Ten Commandments happen to be arranged, but it reflects a basic principle that is pervasive throughout Scripture. The Lord's summary of the Law in this right really is precisely a summary: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, mind, and soul is a summary of the first table, and to love your neighbor as yourself summarizes the second (Mat. 22:36-40). We see the same thing in the Lord's Prayer: we concern ourselves first with God--that his name be hallowed, his will done, his kingdom advanced--and then with ourselves and our neighbors (Mat. 6:9-13). The Lord's principle of priorities is the same: to seek first the kingdom (first table) and then all these things (second table) will be added to us (Mat. 6:33).There is a single divine Mind at work here, leaving its imprint on all these passages. And therefore there is a basic principle here: on the basis of the vertical we square up the horizontal. Therefore, before we examine a single commandment individually let us learn the lesson of the unity and scope of the whole: that all of life is to be theocentric, God-centered. "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."


Because the Law is so important, we need some basic guidelines to be sure that we are interpreting it correctly, i.e., biblically--to be sure that, as Paul says, we are using the law "lawfully." Most of what I am going to say here is common sense, though often not thought of. If we had time, we could demonstrate these rules inductively by seeing the use the rest of Scripture makes of the Ten Commandments. Much rest of this series will indeed be an unfolding of those facts. But today I want to pull them together so you can see the big picture.

All the other commandments of Scripture are an expansion, an unfolding, or an application of the foundational rules covered here in the Ten Commandments, and can usually be reduced to one or more of the heads covered here. Therefore, not only is this a pathway that leads us into the rest of the Bible, but it must be understood in terms of its biblical development. What kinds of killing are murder? How do we rightly keep the Sabbath? Such questions can be rightly answered in two ways: by seeing how the basic rules here are expanded in other commandments, and by seeing the historical examples Scripture gives of people applying them, with the corresponding record of divine approval or judgment. This is the first and most basic principle of interpretation, and the other three flow from it. Every positive commandment includes and entails the prohibition of the corresponding vice; every negative command includes and entails the injunction of the corresponding virtue or duty. In other words, if I am not to steal, then I am to work with my hands instead, to be a good steward of what God gives me, and study how to respect and protect the property of others. If I am not to commit murder, then I am to respect life and have a duty to protect innocent life. If I am not to take God's name in vain, then I am to be concerned with how to honor it. If I am not to covet, then I am to cultivate a proper inner attitude toward things, especially the possessions of others. Etc. The same precept which forbids the external and outward acts of sin also forbids the inward desire of that sin to be treasured in the heart. The Sermon on the Mount was largely a systematic exposition of this principle, as Jesus considers the relation of lust to adultery, of hate to murder. Otherwise, if obedience were an outward thing only, we would be giving God only the shell and husk of obedience, while the Devil gets the nut. This is true of God's law, but not of human law: Cop looketh on the outward appearance, but God sees the heart. In other words, human beings can only be held accountable by civil law for outward acts because human judges are not competent to handle inner offences. But God is so competent, and sees, and will judge. (One begins to see already why a fuller understanding of the law makes righteousness by works impossible. Against such a standard as this, who can stand? None but Christ. And therefore we must stand in His righteousness imputed if we are to stand at all. It follows from this that the commandment which forbids a particular sin also forbids whatever would be for us an occasion or inducement to that sin. We must be careful here. The Pharisees went astray by trying to "build a hedge around the law," and you must not think that is what we are advocating. The key phrase is what would be FOR US an occasion or inducement--not what might be one for anyone else. That is why on this point it is especially perilous to judge another. Here is where the "weaker brother" principle comes into play. A person, for example, who had made athletics his god might have to give up sports altogether. But he would be wrong to conclude that therefore every other Christian who plays is sinning. But the general application is clear. The story is told of a boy who was told to come straight home from school on a particular day rather than stopping at the swimming hole. When he arrived, his mother found his swimming trunks in his backpack. "What are these doing here," she demanded. "Oh, just in case I was tempted," he replied. So if we must not commit adultery, we must not be consumers of pornography; if we have a problem with alcohol, we do not frequent bars; if we are not to commit murder, we must not hold grudges; if we are not to steal, we must not covet. The covetous commandment in fact is there partly to clue us into this principle. CONCLUSION

The more we study the Law the more we should realize three things. First, the marvelous wisdom and goodness of God who has devised and revealed such a complete, wholesome, and applicable guide to a fulfilled and blessed life. Second, the impossibility of keeping the Law perfectly in all its ramifications, inwardly and spiritually as well as outwardly. And third, the incomprehensible grace and mercy of God in Christ, who although we had so maliciously broken such a good and reasonable and wholesome rule of life, not only kept it perfectly for us but died in our place to take the penalty rightly due to our transgression. It is that love and grace we celebrate in Communion. As we partake, let us recommit ourselves to the God of grace and to the way of life he died to make possible for us.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams