Written in Stone
From Editor: This article by Dr. Thomas K. Johnson (United States and Czech Republic) is a chapter in the upcoming WRF/WEA book on The Decalogue and is posted here in its entirety. Dr. Thomas challenges believers not to look upon God's law with the terrible feeling of those who "only know its condemning use", but to understand that "once we really know God's grace, we can see what a treasure God's law is... We can say with the psalmist, 'Oh, how I love your law' (Psalm 119:97)."
This is a revised version of a sermon based on Deuteronomy 5:1-33 (the Ten Commandments), preached on May 27, 2018, at the International Church of Prague, in the Czech Republic. The scripture reading follows the sermon introduction.
I first preached a long series of sermons on the Ten Commandments some thirty years ago when I was a young church-planting pastor, serving a new congregation. Then the Lord opened a special door for me to spend almost twenty years teaching philosophy, ethics, and religious history in secular universities, partly in the U.S., partly in the former Soviet Union, and then more than a decade in universities in Prague. Many of my classes were small, almost all fewer than 25 students, many fewer than 15 students, so I included a lot of discussion in my classrooms. I did not generally identify myself as a Christian at the beginning of the semester, but that was not necessary. I might be teaching about ancient Greek philosophy and see on their desks that students had printed sermons I had preached or my articles on Christian ethics and apologetics. Only a few of my students identified themselves as Christians; many regarded themselves as agnostic, atheist, or undecided, while a few identified themselves as Muslims.
I always tried to challenge my students to think very deeply, but I tried to be very gentle and to show respect as they wrestled with humanity’s ultimate questions and talked openly about their concerns, convictions, and fears. One of the deepest compliments I received from students was that I, the Christian philosopher, was the one who taught them how to think, whereas their atheist professors taught them what to think. Part of what I received from hundreds of such gentle, respectful discussions was the privilege of looking inside their minds to see what they thought about the Christian faith and about Christian ethics. And I noticed some clear patterns of how my students thought about the matters that I hold dear. Some of these patterns had to do with the Ten Commandments, even if many students had never read the Bible. I will mention three such patterns.
- Many students thought that biblical commandments are arbitrary and irrational, having no connection with human nature or human well-being, so that they do not contribute to human happiness. Though it was seldom stated directly, many seemed to think that if one wants to be self-destructive and have a miserable life, one should simply follow these old-fashioned, irrational rules.
- The second misinterpretation was that the main purpose of the Ten Commandments is to teach people how to earn God’s favor. If you want to go to heaven, if you want to be sure you are accepted by God, you must keep the Commandments.
- Many students would claim to be moral relativists, saying either that there are no universal moral rules or that we cannot know universal moral rules, but then be passionately committed to a few moral principles that were similar to some of the Ten Commandments. Once I taught a class on ancient texts on ethics and included the Ten Commandments in class discussion. I then told the students to look at only the last six, and I asked if they learned anything new by reading them. Most of the class of religiously agnostic moral relativists said they really did not learn much, because they already knew these moral principles. This is not what some Christians would expect. I then explained that many Christians have thought some of these principles were built into the human mind in creation, so it is impossible not to know some of them.
I would like us to try, together, to take a new look at the Ten Commandments to see what we will see. It is good, so far as possible, for us to read the Bible in community with other people who are reading the Bible; we always come to the Bible with expectations and assumptions that may be partly wrong, so we need input from each other. That is also why it is good, so far as possible, to learn how Christians in the past have understood key texts in the Bible; if we listen to them, our predecessors may prevent us from some misunderstandings.
The Ten Commandments
And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. 2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4 The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, 5 while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:
6 “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
7 “‘You shall have no other gods before] me.
8 “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or 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 generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 “‘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.
12 “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave[c] in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
16 “‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
17 “‘You shall not murder.
18 “‘And you shall not commit adultery.
19 “‘And you shall not steal.
20 “‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
21 “‘And you shall not covet your neighbor's wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor's house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.’
22 “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! 30 Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ 32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.”
Thesis: Here is what I see in the preamble (verses 1 through 6) to the Ten Commandments:
God has declared His redemptive ownership of His people, giving us principles to live out His redemption in ways that are consistent with the norms He created into us.
Throughout the Old Testament we have several summaries of God’s covenant with His people. These say, more or less, “I am your God, and you are My people.” The preamble to the Ten Commandments is a long version of the covenant. It emphasizes that God owns us and that we belong to Him.
Of course, everything belongs to God. And by the great plagues which God sent upon Egypt before He brought His people out of Egypt, God was pointedly revealing that the earth belongs to God. It was specifically about the plague of hail that Moses said, in Exodus 9, that this happened “so you may know that the earth is the Lord’s” (verse 29). And many of the plagues seem designed to communicate the same message, that the earth is the Lord’s. But in the Ten Commandments, God is declaring His ownership of His people in a very different kind of way. God is declaring that He is not only their Creator, but that He is also their Redeemer, their Savior, and that they belong to Him as His specially redeemed people, as His community.
This is the response to people who suspect that God’s commands are or ever were a way to earn God’s favor or salvation. The Commandments never had that function. They were written in stone to provide an explicit foundation for the way of life of God’s own community. We are at a much later point in the history of God’s salvation. We live after the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, events that were far off the horizon in Moses’ day. We have a much fuller revelation of God’s undeserved grace, so we should never imagine the Commandments have anything to do with earning salvation or a place in heaven. But already in Moses’ day, it was crystal clear that the commands of God were not to be used to earn God’s favor. His people had just been saved from the house of bondage in Egypt.
The text we have read in Deuteronomy 5 is the second giving of the Ten Commandments. God first gave Israel the Ten Commandments some forty years before at Mount Sinai. The people here, in the second giving of the Law, were either children or had not yet been born during the first giving of the Law. Yet Moses spoke to them as if they had been adults at Mount Sinai; this was because they were, as a community, facing the existential choice of a lifetime as they were about to enter the promised land. Their choice would articulate their faith, way of life, identity, and destiny. They could say “yes,” God specially loved and chose our ancestors and brought us out of Egypt, and therefore we will embrace the way of life He has given us. Or they could say “no” and thereby suffer the loss of everything that made them who they were as the people of God.
When we read the Ten Commandments, we face, I believe, the same existential choice faced by Israel some 3400 years ago. We can say “yes” not only to the Exodus but also to the gospel of Christ, and we acknowledge that the God who has saved us has made us His own possession, so that we know that we belong to God in Jesus Christ. And this God who has rescued us has also given us a way of life, a moral law that prescribes the meaning of our day-to-day lives. Or we can say “no” to the gospel and to the law of God, but if we say that, we are lost to wander in the meaningless desert of the post-modern world. So please, with me, say “yes!” to both the gospel and to the law of God.
Assuming that we all have said or will say “Yes!” both to the gospel of Christ and also to God’s law, we need to think together. This is the hard work of faith seeking understanding. Let’s get started!
When we read the Ten Commandments, we should keep in mind that the Bible itself distinguishes them from the rest of the Bible. We say that all the Bible is the Word of God, and it is; but only the Ten Commandments were delivered by God himself, in an audible voice, from Mount Sinai. Only the Ten Commandments were written in stone. It has been argued that being written in stone did not have exactly the same meaning that this image has today. Some say it was merely normal. In their day, very probably, all extremely important treaties were recorded on stone. But that really is the point: in their day, documents of extreme importance were written on stone; documents of lesser importance were written in some other way.
The Ten Commandments have an enduring character that some other commands in the Bible do not have. For example, in Deuteronomy 12:21 we read the command not to boil a calf in its mother's milk. This was probably a response to a pagan religious practice. If modern pagans revive that practice, we should not participate, but it is quite possible that command will never directly apply to any of us. So, too, in Deuteronomy 22:8 there is a command to build a railing around the roof of your house. This was related to the practice of using the roof as a patio. If any of us uses the roof as a patio, we should obey the command of God to build a safe railing, but that may never apply to some of us. The Ten Commandments are set apart within the Bible; they apply to all people everywhere. They are central to God; most of the other commands of God in the Bible seem to assume these major Ten.
In the main portion of this study, we shall look at each of the Ten Commandments. But before we do so, I want to ask what roles or functions God's standards should play in our lives. God has given us His law – what do we do with it? I believe the Ten Commandments should have at least three major functions in our lives. I did not figure this out on my own. Much of what I know on this topic came from reading Martin Luther and John Calvin some forty years ago.
This is the way the question came up for Martin Luther. He spent his early years trying to earn salvation or to earn assurance of salvation. He was dreadfully afraid of God’s wrath. After years of wrestling with the Bible, he became convinced that we are justified by faith alone. What a breakthrough! By trusting in the promise of God, that Jesus died and rose for us, Luther learned that we are united with Christ and stand before God clothed in Christ’s righteousness. His righteousness is credited to me, while my guilt and shame are credited to Christ on the cross. Hallelujah! That is the gospel!
But then Luther faced more big questions. How does God want us to live? Should Luther continue to put a lot of emphasis on fasting, monasteries, chastity, pilgrimages, and indulgences? Or were God’s priorities something different? What Luther learned was that:
I. The Ten Commandments, with the other commands of God in the Bible, provide the moral structure for a life pleasing to God, a life of worship to God.
By trusting in the gospel, we are justified before God; God’s law teaches a way of life pleasing to God. We need to be reminded of the importance of distinguishing God’s moral law from the gospel of salvation. I think Luther was right that this distinction tends to be forgotten, so we need always to talk about it.
If we want a key word to describe the way of life pleasing to God, I would choose the word gratitude, or thankfulness. It should be with gratitude for salvation that we embrace a way of life which is pleasing to God. In Romans 1:21, ingratitude for God’s self-revelation and sustaining grace is seen as the root of a Godless way of life. It would be wise to say gratitude sets the direction and spirit of a life pleasing to God, a life of worship. I sometimes call this the “doxological use of God’s law.”
Some of us have surely traveled Luther’s road, trying to earn God's favor or assurance of salvation by something we do. And we may have done some crazy things to try to gain that assurance. That is why it is so important to see and know that God’s law was never given to be a way to earn salvation or assurance of salvation. It should be with gratitude for salvation that we embrace God’s law as the moral structure for a life of worship to God.
There are a couple of things I should say at this point. The first is that the moral law and love for people go together like hand and glove. Sometimes people want to separate the moral law from love for others, but that is a mistake. When we look at the preamble, we see that loving God's law is to be a response to having been loved by God. And it is surely not loving to other people to bear false witness against them or to commit murder, robbery, or adultery.
The second is that God's moral law helps life to flourish. When I was a teenager, I spent what seemed like long hours wondering if God's moral law is destructive for us, a question very similar to what I heard from my students a generation later. Then I found 1 John 5:3, which says, ". . .his commandments are not burdensome." This echoes an Old Testament theme that we are to obey God, "that it may go well with you" (for example, Deuteronomy 4:40 and 5:29). As a teenager, I accepted this principle by faith alone. But now, after half a century of study and travel, it is a matter of both faith and reason for me. When people embrace God’s law with gratitude for salvation, His law tends to make life flourish. A main exception is when people are severely persecuted for their biblical faith.
There is a second use of God’s moral law, which Luther also knew about.
II. God’s moral law shows us our sin.
In Romans 3:20 we read, ". . .through the law comes knowledge of sin." If I drove down a city street at 200 kph, all sensible people would know I was doing something horribly wrong; I might kill someone. The official speed limits make the sin clearer, but the sin would be real even if there were no written speed limits. So, too, without the Ten Commandments, people are somewhat aware of sin, but the commandments make sin much clearer.
In fact, that may be one of the reasons so many of the commandments are phrased in the negative, "You shall not. . ." With this phrasing, they stand as a protest against sin, a confrontation with our sin. It is assumed the reader will be doing some of these things, and he must be told to stop. The law points out and protests against our sinfulness.
In Christian history it is common to compare this use of God's law with a mirror. Some people may look into a mirror to see how “beautiful” they are. But generally, in history, Christians have thought we look into a mirror to see what is wrong with our appearance. So, too, we look into God's law to learn what is wrong with ourselves. You might say we get to know ourselves through God's law.
This may occur in different ways at different times in life. When we first come to faith, when we are converted, one of the things that has to happen is that we need to recognize that we are sinful. And we recognize our own sin by God's law.
A step in this process of being convinced of sin is that God's law may prompt us to become even more sinful. When encountering God's law, some people react: "I don't care what God says. I will do what I want!!" This seems to be what Paul has in mind in Romans 7:5 when he mentions, ". . .our sinful passions, aroused by the law." When that happens, we hope it is a step toward being personally convicted of sin and repenting and coming to faith.
I have heard a story that has the ring of truth, even if it might be a parable. There was a nice hotel on an island in a lake, built so that the windows of the hotel rooms were directly above the edge of the lake. The manager put “No Fishing!” signs by the hotel windows, yet he had repeated problems with the windows being broken, with the breaks apparently happening when people were fishing from their windows. His expensive consultant recommended he try removing the “No Fishing!” signs to see what happened. When the signs were removed, there were no more broken windows. Without the signs, no one thought of fishing from the window of a nice hotel. The law was prompting the sin. And that can happen to us in ways more important than fish and broken windows.
One of the things Martin Luther discovered as he was studying God’s Word is that repentance is usually described as an ongoing or frequently repeated process of changing one’s mind or renewing one’s mind. In the first of his famous 95 Theses of 1517 he wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That includes getting a new perspective on things. Repentance is not only an event at the beginning of the life of faith, and it is not only an occasional special event. That is why Luther made repentance a constant theme in worship.
Being shown our sin has to continue in order for us to grow in the Christian life. We need to be convicted regularly regarding sin, so we can live lives of continual repentance. This is not the whole of the Christian life, but it is a part, and it is partly why we should read God's law.
There is another use of God’s moral law.
III. God’s moral law can help to restrain sinful actions.
In Christian history this was alternately called the “civil use” of the moral law or the “political use” of God’s law. In Exodus 20:20 we read, ". . .that the fear of [God] may be before you, that you may not sin." And this fear is related to God's law.
It would be nice to think that Christians would follow God's law simply out of love and gratitude. But quite honestly, it does not work that way all the time. Sometimes gratitude runs low. At those times we may obey God out of fear or habit or motivated by what other people will think. Certainly, this is not as good as obeying God out of gratitude, but it would be terrible if you murdered someone because your gratitude was low today. And the Bible is realistic about our motivations.
It may be good to distinguish this use of God's law among believers in the church from its use in society, which is religiously mixed. Even among people who do not believe in God and who may never have read the Bible, God's law helps restrain sin, at least a little. And this comes in several ways.
In Romans 2:14-15 Paul writes, "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, . . ." Through conscience people are somewhat aware of God's law, and sometimes this really restrains sin. One of the most morally sensitive people I have known was a man who claimed to be an agnostic.
Another way this happens is through law enforcement. Even some terrible governments have laws about killing and stealing that partly correspond with God's law. When government breaks down, there will always be a few people who have no other restraint to keep them from killing, stealing, and destroying. The “war of all against all,” sometimes described by political philosophers, is a constant danger.
This restraining influence of God's law in society also comes through believers. In Exodus 19, just before the first proclamation of the Ten Commandments, we are told that God's people are to be a priestly people. A priest is a go-between. The giving of the law constituted God's people as a priestly people who bring God's law into the world. Through the words and example of believers, God's law can have a substantial good effect on a whole society, even if unbelievers do not know what that influence is or where it comes from. Among unbelievers, God sometimes remains anonymous while His law guides parts of life. Across two thousand years of Christian history there have been many times when God’s people became serious about God’s law, and this flowed over into the surrounding community, reducing theft, murder, and sexual assault. Some themes from God’s moral law have found a place in civil laws and legal systems in many countries. In this way, God’s people have been serving in a priestly role, bringing some parts of God’s law into societies and cultures, and this has visible effects. This is why I write books about human rights. We have a lot to do here, but a first part includes getting to know God’s law quite well.
Sometimes believers have terrible feelings about God's law, perhaps because they have tried to earn God's favor or because they only know its condemning use. But once we really know God's grace, we can see what a treasure God's law is. Unlike some of our neighbors, we are not at sea without a compass or a rudder. We can say with the psalmist, "Oh, how I love your law" (Psalm 119:97).
I want to close with a liturgical question that requires an answer from you. The right answer is for you to stand up and say “Yes!” with a loud voice. The question is similar to the existential question faced by the Israelites at this second giving of God’s law. Here is the question:
People of God: The Lord your God has brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. He sent His Son to be born as a baby, to live, to die, to rise again, and to ascend into heaven for your complete salvation. He has sent His Holy Spirit to empower you to live for Him in this world. Will you now accept His gospel and His moral law as providing the meaning of your lives, as the destiny to which He has called you? What is your answer?
Note: At this point the congregation, which included Christians from around the globe, arose to their feet and shouted “Yes!” to the glory of God, affirming their comprehensive discipleship.
 The report of the first official proclamation of the Ten Commandments is in Exodus 20. Earlier portions of Scripture show that God-fearing people were aware of most of these principles before they were written in stone.
 For more of what I learned from Martin Luther and John Calvin see “Culturally Relevant Hermeneutics: A Return to the Reformation,” Chapter 2 of Thomas K. Johnson, Christian Ethics in Secular Cultures: Vol. 2: Culture, Hermeneutics, Natural Law, Islam, and Missions, World of Theology Series Published by the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance (Bonn: VKW, 2022); https://www.academia.edu/74013380/Christian_Ethics_in_Secular_Cultures_vol_2_Culture_Hermeneutics_Natural_Law_Islam_Missions.
 This slogan was made famous by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan (1651).
Thomas K. Johnson, Ph.D., is Senior Theological Advisor to the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), which represents and connects over 600 million Christians in 143 countries. He also serves as WEA Special Envoy to the Vatican and as Special Envoy to Engage Humanitarian Islam. He has long been a foremost international Protestant voice on human rights and religious freedom, including numerous publications and consulting with diplomats and religious leaders from around the globe. Profile here.