Trinity Six Sermon| July 3, 2005| Exodus 20:1-17
If you could describe the good life, how would you do it? What kind of life is the best life that can be lived? If all the wise men from every corner of the world and every era of human history were to gather together to distill all their wisdom into ten statements describing the kind of lives we should be living they could not produce anything approaching the wisdom of the Ten Commandments. These words from God describe the life that is worth living. If we all obeyed the Ten Commandments from the heart we would be living in a paradise on earth.
Imagine a world in which everyone gave honor and praise and glory solely to our God and Father in heaven. Everyone would be united in perfect love, receiving true love from God and revering His name. We would pray in perfect unity and never misuse God’s name to promote lies. We would find spiritual rest together by receiving God’s word in simple and pure faith, unfettered by doubts of any kind. Fathers and mothers would be respected, obeyed, honored, and loved. No one’s life would be treated as unimportant. There would be no fighting, no murdering, no abortion, no euthanasia, and no hatred. Marriage would be between one man and one woman and would indeed be lifelong. Everyone would respect marriage and remain faithful to their vows. Theft would be unknown as everyone saw fit to protect the property of his neighbor. Nobody would deal in lies. Gossip would consist solely in pleasant recounting of the many good and wonderful things others have done and nobody’s reputation would be damaged in any way. Everyone would be content with what he had and would not try to take advantage of his neighbor. This would indeed be a wonderful world. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments from the heart, everyone would live the good life.
You don’t need to be a Christian to see this. People who don’t know Christ do know that virtue is its own reward and that the good life is a life of humility, mercy, purity, generosity, self-control, and faithfulness. People have by nature a basic understanding of God’s law. We call this the conscience. The Ten Commandments resonate with people of every religion. They know that these commandments are just and that if we obeyed them we would be living righteous lives.
God gave the Ten Commandments to the ancient people of Israel. He gave them to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who had been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. Listen to what God said: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel after He had set them free from slavery.
Israel did nothing to entice God to choose her to be His people. God called Abraham out of idolatry to faith. He did not choose Abraham because Abraham deserved to be chosen. He chose him by grace alone. Likewise, God chose Isaac by grace alone. He chose Jacob by grace alone. God does not choose His children because they obey Him. He chooses His children by His grace alone. God chooses us and sets us free to be His people on the basis of gospel, not on the basis of the law.
The law and the gospel are the two main teachings of God’s Word. The law is summarized in the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. It tells us what we must do if we are to enjoy God’s blessings. The gospel is revealed in Christ alone. It tells us what Christ has done for us to win for us God’s eternal blessings. The law shows us our sins and condemns us for them. The gospel shows us our Savior and gives us forgiveness of sins. The law issues threats. The gospel threatens no one. The law kills. The gospel gives life. The law must be preached to sinners who hold on to their sins and refuse to repent. The gospel must be preached to those who admit their sins, want to be rid of them, and are afraid of God’s judgment against them. The law always accuses. It always condemns. The gospel always forgives and saves. The law promises blessing to all who obey it. The gospel promises blessing to all who believe it.
We need to hear both the law and the gospel. We need to hear the law because without the law we cannot learn of our need for a Savior. The law must do its work. It must judge us. It must condemn us. It must destroy our confidence in our sinful flesh. Only when our sins have been exposed to our conscience can we receive through faith the forgiveness of sins that God gives us in Christ. The work of the law is to destroy false faith. By nature we hold to a false faith. It is a faith in our own sinful flesh. The main purpose of God’s law is to show us that we cannot trust in ourselves. We cannot trust in our humility, mercy, purity, generosity, self-control, or faithfulness.
The law that God gave to Israel is not what set Israel free. As we have seen, God freed Israel from slavery before He gave them the Ten Commandments. When men set out to create their own religions they invariably teach the law as a means of obtaining spiritual freedom. But the very opposite is true.
When I was a boy I used to play with Chinese handcuffs. You would attach one end to a finger on one hand and the other end to a finger on the other hand. The harder you pulled the tighter they gripped your fingers. That’s how it is with those who depend on the law to bring them spiritual freedom. The more they try to gain it by themselves the more tightly bound in spiritual slavery they become. The most religious people are most firmly bound in spiritual slavery. The reason is their false faith. They trust in a false god. By trying to gain spiritual freedom by obeying the Commandments they find themselves in defiance of the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
The most popular idols are not those made with human hands. They are those made by the human mind. Idolatry begins by setting aside the true God for an idol of human invention. The true God is the God who sets His people free before they worship Him or obey Him. “I am the LORD your God.” This is the foundation for all that follows. First God becomes our God and makes us His children. This is the beginning of faith, worship, obedience, and the life worth living. God makes Himself our God. God makes us His children.
This is why St. Paul calls us back to our baptism in order to call us to live holy lives. We live holy lives only as we are joined to the death and resurrection of Christ in Holy Baptism. God washes away our sins. This is how He sets us free. He places His name upon us in Holy Baptism. He kills our sinful flesh by forgiving us all our sins. This is precisely the opposite of how the religions of the world work. They try to kill the flesh by means of laying down the law. But all that will do is strengthen the flesh’s resistance to God. The law is powerless to give anything to anybody who doesn’t obey it. And you cannot obey any commandment of God’s law unless you obey the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” And you cannot obey the Fist Commandment apart from trusting in Christ alone for your salvation. If you are trusting in your obedience to the law, the law you trust will condemn you as an impenitent idolater. You cannot simultaneously have the LORD as your God while you depend for eternal life on your own obedience to God’s law.
It is precisely when you set aside all reliance on God’s law and trust instead in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that you begin to do what the Ten Commandments tell you to do. Christians obey the Ten Commandments. They worship the Triune God and reject as idols all other gods. They do not misuse God’s name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. They do not despise preaching and God’s word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. They love and honor their parents. They help and befriend their neighbor in his bodily needs. They live chaste lives. They protect their neighbor’s property and good name. They live content with what God has given to them. They do this because they have been set free from the curse of the law.
I am describing the life – the good life – that God has given us to live. The Ten Commandments do not impose misery upon us. Our misery comes from our failure to obey them. If we obeyed them we would be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied. It is not God’s fault that we don’t love him above all things. It is not our neighbor’s fault that we don’t love him as much as we love ourselves. It is our own fault. The law won’t stop telling us this. Should we succeed in silencing the law we will only succeed in destroying ourselves because it is only in humble penitence that our faith can be born, nourished and sustained.
So we look at these commandments that God has given to us. Does your life correspond to what God says in these commandments? It does not. So repent. Return to your baptism. There you will find the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It is the righteousness of Christ. It is reckoned to you. Jesus is your God and your brother and your Redeemer. He obeyed the law you disobeyed and He suffered for your sins. This is the gospel truth and this gospel is God’s word to you. It is His word to you when your heart condemns you because the law judges you as a sinner. The gospel silences the judgment of the law. You can’t do it. Christ did it.
Listen to the gospel and live your Christian life. God sees none of your sins. Christ has covered them with His blood. God sees His dear child who pleases Him in body and soul. That’s the life of the Christian. It’s the life God has given us to live and it’s a life worth living.