I’ve noticed the Ten Commandments displayed around my home town in various places. In Alexander, North Dakota – a short distance from the Montana line – there’s an especially large Ten Commandments display in such a prominent place you have to wonder if it’s on city property. Christians all around the country are following the lead of Judge Roy Moore, fighting to keep displays of the Ten Commandments in public places.
Now let me begin by saying that I have no problem with Ten Commandments displays. Concerning public property, being that our law is founded on Judeo-Christian princples, if displayed for historical purposes – go for it. But I do think that a display of the Ten Commandments, if not done thoughtfully, can be wrong and counter-productive for the Gospel.
1. If your motivation for displaying the Ten Commandments is an assumption that if we follows it, God will bless us.
Are we justified by works? Is it really as simple as Glenn Beck suggests, just “follow the Big 10 and we’ll be ok”? First, let’s understand that we cannot follow the Ten Commandments. No one has (except Christ) and no one (except Christ) ever will. The works-based (and fairy-tale based) religion of Glenn Beck’s Mormonism may perceive obedience as the key to salvation, but that’s simply not the Gospel. Consider the words of Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:26, “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will be clean!” So what if you get heathen people to behave like Christians (which they can’t do anyway). You don’t go to Heaven for behaving like Christians, but for believing like Christians in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Does it do anyone any good if they go to hell a heterosexual instead of going to hell a homosexual? Not in the end.
Part of this poor theology-in-action is a belief commonly phrased “if we would only turn back to God He would heal our land and bless us.” This is taken from 2 Chronicles 7:4, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Yeah, about that. That’s a promise to Israel (IE “my people”), first of all. It’s like claiming the “I know what plans I have for you, plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future and hope,” when the promise was obviously given to the exiles of Israel by God through the prophet Jeremiah. But poor hermeneutic aside, here’s the point: The point of us turning to God should not be the hopes He will bless us. The point is turning to God. In other words, it’s not an “if, then.” When we say, “if we would only obey the 10 Commandments God will bless us” it’s not only a complete misunderstanding of what pleases God, but it makes the prosperity of our land ultimate, not the obedience itself ultimate.
2. If you’re displaying the Ten Commandments under the assumption that they can be followed.
Are you displaying the Ten Commandments on your lawn as a way of saying to your neighbors and passers-by, “hey, you better follow these”? If so, you’re abusing God’s Law. It’s a gross misunderstanding of human nature to assume anyone can follow the Ten Commandments. It’s only the gravest degree of legalism that can obscure someone’s spiritual sight enough to make them believe the Ten Commandments are attainable. Jesus Himself clarified the near-impossibility of following the Ten Commandments; for example, if you lust you’re guilty of breaking 7th Commandment. If you get angry at another and wished them harm, or if you’ve gossiped against another, you’ve broken 6th. Jesus said that all of the law can be summarized by loving God as much as you should and loving your neighbor equally to yourself (Mark 12). Who does that? No one. And the Scripture is clear, if you break just one commandment, you’ve broken them all (James 2:10).
3. If you’re displaying the Ten Commandments without displaying the Gospel.
If the Ten Commandments cannot be followed, then what’s the point of them? This is Christianity 101. The point of the Ten Commandments is show us how we fall short as a “measuring stick,” thereby proving to us that we need a Savior. To simply display the Ten Commandments without the Gospel along side we are condemning people to guilt and not providing them a display of grace. We are doing what Paul says in Romans 7, “the Commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” When our message is “follow the Big 10 and you’ll be ok,” we’re actually promising life but delivering death because no one can do that.” How cruel to the passer-by! To dangle a carrot in front of them that they can never reach, and to not have salvation there for them even if they could!
I understand the motivation of displaying the Ten Commandments. That mean ole’ government makes us take it down from the court house, schools, and town squares. So we put it up on our church houses and front lawns. Good. I get it. But it doesn’t accomplish anything.
A. Ungodly people won’t act godly unless they’re born again. Don’t expect unchristian people to follow Christian rules.
B. Ungodly people don’t become Christians by following the Ten Commandments. They become Christians by repenting of their failure to follow the Ten Commandments, understanding that they can NEVER follow the Ten Commandments, and that they need a Savior because they can’t behave themselves well enough to save themselves.
C. Displaying the Ten Commandments as some type of road-sign to God (didn’t work for the Jews) instead of the Biblical use of pointing out our depravity not only makes it appear as though works-based salvation is possible, but that it’s necessary. And for those who might understand the proper use of the Ten Commandments, displaying them absent the Gospel will certainly bring legalism as we think that our salvation is somehow maintained or favor with God gained by following the Law, instead of relying upon the ever-imparting grace and intercession of Jesus.
So go right ahead and display those Ten Commandments. They’re in the Bible to be used, but used correctly; not as a “do this and God will be happy with you,” but a “you can’t ever live up to this, so it’s about time you find a Savior.” So put up that display, and beneath it put a John 3:16 or Romans 6:23 or best yet, a Romans 8:1.
[Contributed by JD Hall, first posted April 5, 2011]