The Purpose of the 10 Commandments
What the Law Can & Cannot Do
by Rob Armstrong
"Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin." - Romans 3:20 (NIV)
As indicated in the passage above, no one can become right with God by obeying the Commandments. This being the case, what was God's intended purpose for giving the Law? Let's have a look at five specific things the Bible says about God's commandments.
1. God's laws and commandments are indeed laws and commands. Someone has correctly said, "The 10 Commandments were not 10 Suggestions". In other words, obeying God's Law was never something optional, but always mandatory. This means that the Commandments were never intended to be just a set of goals or ideals that we should try to live up to. Instead they are what God demanded. Therefore, we should never mislead ourselves into thinking that trying to keep the Commandments is the same as actually keeping them.
2. In the Gospels, Jesus raised the bar by making it clear that keeping the Commandments is not just a matter of outward compliance or external obedience. Listen to how he puts it, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder...' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment...You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Matthew 5:21-22 & 27-29 (NIV). In other words, hatred is analogous to murder and lust is commensurate with adultery. In light of the teachings of Jesus, can any of us claim that we are truly innocent before God and undeserving of his condemnation? Since Jesus made it clear that the Law and the 10 Commandments apply directly to our thoughts, motives and passions, let us never deceive ourselves into believing that just because we obey God outwardly we are doing all that God demands. "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV). "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules." Matthew 15:8&9 (NIV).
3. Both Moses and Jesus summarized the Commandments by saying, "Thou shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind and strength. And thou shall love your neighbor as yourself". In view of these statements, can any of us ever claim that we have fully obeyed God's Law? Have you, even once, ever loved God with all of your emotions, thoughts and efforts? Can any of us make the claim that we have always loved our neighbor as much as we have loved ourselves? Add to this the fact that Jesus said that we should also "love our enemies" and it becomes clear that we should never fool ourselves into thinking that we are really living by God's Commandments or that we are even doing our best to do so.
4. The book of James says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet offends in one point, is guilty of breaking it all." James 2:10 (NIV). In other words, anyone who disobeys one of God’s commandments, just once, is a lawbreaker. This may sound harsh, but in actuality what James is saying is true in any legal system. For example, in our federal and state court systems, when someone is found guilty of breaking the law they are considered a 'lawbreaker' and when someone is found guilty of committing a crime, they are considered a 'criminal'. In light of what James is saying, we should always remember that God's Law is not just a list of separate commandments, but a unified and perfect whole. We can illustrate the unity of God's Law by thinking of it as a priceless and irreplaceable antique crystal vase that is on display in a museum. Using this example, let's say that a visitor to the museum accidentally (or intentionally) knocks the vase off of its stand, shattering it into dozens of pieces on the floor. Now imagine this visitor trying to defend his actions by saying to the museum authorities, “This is the first time I have ever broken a vase in my whole life!" Or, "I only broke it one time, so what's the big deal?" Or, "I've been really careful the whole time I’ve been here. As you can see, I haven't broken anything else in the entire museum!" Obviously we would view these excuses as absurd. But in reality, most of us use similar excuses to rationalize away the fact that we have broken God's Law. We say things like “Nobody’s perfect” or “I’ve kept most of the Commandments” or “I usually do what’s right”. But God’s Word is clear, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet offends in one point, is guilty of breaking it all."
5. In the Book of Galatians Paul says, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse. For cursed is everyone who does not continue to keep the whole law.” Galatians 3:10 (NIV). What Paul and James are saying is very similar, except that Paul adds that those who rely on the Law are "under a curse”. He says that anyone who does not continually obey all of God’s laws, all of the time, is under God's condemnation! In the next verse he says emphatically, "Clearly no one is justified in God's sight by obeying the Law..." (Galatians 3:11).
The five statements above make it clear that the Law does not, and cannot, ever make us good or holy in the sight of God. It only reveals our sin and our guilt. "Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin." The purpose of the Law is is to show us our hopeless sinful condition and to demonstrate that we are entirely incapable of producing the kind of righteousness that God requires. “There is no one righteous [in God's sight], not even one.” Romans 3:10 (NIV). "The whole world is a prisoner of sin. So that what was promised being given through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe..." Galatians 3:22-25 (NIV). "A person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law...no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.” Galatians 2:16 (NLT).