The Purpose of God’s Law
Sixth Sunday after Trinity| June 29, 2008| Rev. Rolf Preus
And 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 bondage.”You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20, 1-17)
A religious survey of Americans was conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The results were just published. It revealed some interesting facts about what Americans believe. Americans of the various branches of Christianity were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” 66% of all Protestants said yes. 55% of so called Evangelicals, known to be the more conservative variety of Protestant, said yes. 79% of Roman Catholics said yes. 72% of Eastern Orthodox said yes. Ironically, only two groups – neither of which is Christian – had a minority that said yes, 39% of the Mormons and 16% of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Those who deny the Holy Trinity and the true deity of Jesus Christ insist that their false religion is the only way to eternal life. Those who confess the Holy Trinity and the true deity of Christ deny that their religion is the only way to eternal life. To sum up, a huge majority of nominal Christians in America do not believe that it is necessary to trust in Jesus Christ to receive eternal life.
What does Jesus say? He says, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5, 20) You have to be more righteous than the most righteous people you have ever met if you want to find eternal life. That’s what Jesus said. It looks like most people who call themselves by Jesus’ name are not listening to what Jesus says.
Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me and I give them eternal life.” If you can find eternal life apart from Jesus giving it to you, just how are you going to find it? Certainly, there is no one but Jesus who has died for the sin of the world. Only Jesus is God incarnate. Only Jesus lived the life of perfect obedience that God’s law requires of us all. Only Jesus suffered the punishment for the sins of the world on the cross. So then, if many religions can lead to eternal life, as the vast majority of nominal American Christians believe, what is it that gains eternal life if not Jesus?
Many people believe that the Ten Commandments are the road to eternal life. If that were true, nobody would receive eternal life. The Ten Commandments condemn us all. St. Paul writes in Romans 3,
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. Romans 3, 19-20
He also writes in Galatians 3,
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Galatians 3, 21-22
It is clear from a reading of the Ten Commandments that they were not given to God’s people as a means of gaining eternal life. Consider this. Two events in the Old Testament go together: the Exodus and the giving of the Law. Which came first? Did God give his law to his people before or after he set them free from slavery in Egypt? It was afterward. We read, “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 graciously set them free before he required anything of them. The Ten Commandments were given later. Therefore, the Ten Commandments are not the road to eternal life. They stand as directions for how we should live our lives here and now.
If only we obeyed them. What a world that would be! Imagine if everyone worshipped only the true God. No one loved money or power or pleasure more than God. No one promoted the worship of any false gods. Just think of what life would be like if everyone used God’s name reverently in faithful prayer and never to swear to a lie or to cover up a sin. Imagine a world in which everyone faithfully went to church and the preachers all faithfully preached God’s pure word without adding their own opinions to it? Think of what the world would be like if children honored their parents from their hearts and always showed them respect. If everyone helped out the neighbor in need and did no physical harm to anyone. No murders, no wars, no fighting, all human life respected from the time of a child’s conception in the womb and throughout life. A world in which husbands and wives honored one another, in which no one misused God’s gift by adultery or fornication, and no one sought sexual gratification from someone of the same sex. Imagine a world in which no locks were required on anyone’s doors because nobody stole anything from anyone. Think of what it would be like if no one ever said anything cruel or unkind about anyone else and nobody’s reputation eve suffered harm. Imagine a world in which all people were content with their house, home, family, marriage, and possessions. Greed and envy and covetousness would not exist in anyone’s heart.
Such a world does not exist. If we all sincerely obeyed the Ten Commandments, this world would exist. But we don’t. So it doesn’t.
To the extent that people do obey the Ten Commandments God blesses them for it. He blesses them here and now. Even the ancient pagans knew that virtue was its own reward. Doing good brings about good and this is by God’s own design. If you honor your parents you will learn from a young age how to get along in life. If you avoid violent engagements with others you just might avoid getting hurt or injured. If you respect the marriage vows, keeping yourself pure and being faithful to the one you marry, you’ll know who all your children are and you will avoid various kinds of diseases. If you are satisfied with the things you own you’ll be rich because the love of money won’t capture your heart and pierce you with many sorrows. If you tell the truth you won’t have to fret over how to remember your lies. All this is blessing from God as he rewards a life lived according to his law.
Similarly, if you ignore and despise the Ten Commandments and teach your children the same you will suffer for it and so will they if they learn the lesson you have taught.
The first three of the Ten Commandments teach us how to love God above all things. If you love God you will not worship false gods, you will revere God’s name, and you will cherish his Word. Commandments Four through Ten teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves. If you love your neighbor, you will honor your parents and other legitimate authority, you will not hurt your neighbor physically, you will live a chaste life, you will not steal, you will not lie about others, but will defend the reputation of others as you would defend your own.
The commandments that teach us to love God above all things are called the first table of the law. The commandments that teach us to love our neighbor as ourselves are called the second table of the law. Every nation in the history of the world has had laws that correspond in many ways to the second table of the law. That shouldn’t surprise us because God has given us all a conscience. The Ten Commandments originally served as civil law for the nation of Israel.
But the primary purpose of the law is to show us that we have disobeyed God. We have not loved him above all things. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not gained eternal life by the lives we have lived. Indeed, we have earned eternal death, as the Apostle writes, “The wages of sin is death.” The law demands what we have not done. It demands righteousness we haven’t fulfilled.
But Jesus has. He obeyed not only the letter but the spirit of the law. He loved the Lord his God above all things. He loved his neighbor as himself. In fact, he personified love in everything he did. This obedient man is the LORD our righteousness. He has the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. He gives his righteousness to us. We receive this righteousness through faith in him. God reckons us to be righteous with the righteousness of Christ. He bore the sin of all people on the cross even as he justified all people when he rose from the dead. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the only way to heaven. All other ways lead only to death because only Jesus has fulfilled the demands of the law. This is why we trust in him, confess him as our Savior, and proclaim him to the world. Amen