If I told you about a passage of Scripture that points to beauty, delight, and hope, I’m not sure which passage would come to mind, but I’m fairly confident which passage wouldn’t—the Ten Commandments. That’s likely because, as Bible teacher and author Jen Wilkin puts it in her new book, Ten Words to Live By: Delighting in and Doing What God Commands, the Ten Commandments “suffer from a PR problem” (12). (Here are 20 quotes from the book.)
Not only in the culture at large, but even within the evangelical church, the Ten Commandments are often misunderstood and wrongly sidelined as a hindrance to what Christianity is really about. Following Christ isn’t about rules, it’s about relationship, some say. It’s not about law, it’s about grace, right?
We often find a set of false dichotomies in these well-intentioned efforts to encourage personal relationship with God based in the work of Christ. When we pit rules against relationship, law against grace, we miss the beauty of how God has woven them together. As Wilkin explains, “Rules enable relationship. The Ten Words graciously position us to live at peace with God and others” (18). Rather than dismissing the Ten Commandments as an obsolete list of rules or a pathway to legalism, Wilkin invites us to understand them, love them, and live by them.
But we have not only wrongly perceived the Ten Commandments as a whole. As Wilkin begins to unpack them one by one, we find that we’ve understood neither the depths of what each requires from us nor the richness that each offers us.
Consider the second commandment, to not make and worship images. Though it sounds fairly straightforward, Wilkin shows us that it can’t be checked off by not bowing to carvings and pictures. No, we create images of God when we fashion him to satisfy cultural norms and personal preferences, emphasizing certain attributes and diminishing or denying others.
Similarly, the third commandment, to not take the name of the Lord in vain, means much more than not swearing. It is broken in “everyday patterns of speech, using the name of the Lord with inconsistency, misattribution, lip service, and informality” (50).
One by one, Wilkin takes a command that, on the surface, seems relatively easy to keep, and shows us how we have broken it in more ways than we could have imagined. With boldness and discernment, she calls out the practical manifestations of our lawbreaking hearts.
But lest we feel condemned by our failure to keep the law, Wilkin repeatedly points us to the Lord Jesus, who has already fulfilled it. As we understand in greater detail the depth and breadth of our sin, we see the beauty of Christ magnified. And we see the beauty of the law. For the believer, it isn’t a source of condemnation, but of life and blessing.
As we understand in greater detail the depth and breadth of our sin, we see the beauty of Christ magnified.
Wilkin not only expands our understanding of what the Ten Commandments call us away from, but she also casts a wider and deeper vision of what they call us to. Since Christ has fulfilled the law for us, as we walk in obedience, we do so not in legalism, attempting to earn God’s favor, but in delight, knowing that we already have it.
The law provides good boundaries and protection that enable us to grow in relationship with God and others. The Ten Commandments don’t simply call us to avoid doing wrong to others; they compel us to delight in doing good. They don’t simply call us to avoid dishonoring God; they compel us to delight in wholehearted worship.
As Wilkin explains in the context of the sixth commandment, to not murder, “Because we are accepted in the beloved, we will not be content to simply be not-murderers, or not-contemptuous, or not-angry. We will not merely refrain from taking life—we will run toward giving it” (96). In Christ, the law is transformed from duty to delight, so we “run to be life-protectors and esteem-givers and peacemakers” (96).
Though Wilkin paints a compelling picture of the potential for beauty and delight in the law, we know that we all stumble. “Though ransomed and redeemed, we still falter, relearning again the gift of grace,” she writes. “But we cannot be taken from the narrow path . . . the longer we walk it, the more we grow to look like the one who walked it first and best” (152). And so we have hope.
The Ten Commandments don’t simply call us to avoid doing wrong to others; they compel us to delight in doing good.
Indeed, the very law that would condemn us is a tool of transformation in the hands of our Savior. Though legalism looks to the law as a means of salvation, Wilkin rightly points us to the law as a means of sanctification. “While legalism builds self-righteousness, lawfulness builds righteousness. Obedience to the law is the means of sanctification for the believer,” she writes (15).
Wilkin encourages us, rather than carving images of God into wood or stone, to allow the law to whittle and carve away our sin, that the image of God might be reflected in us more. The Ten Commandments are “engraving tools,” she says. “The more we obey them, the more we reflect his character, visibly, to a world that very much needs us to” (43).
On Earth as It Is in Heaven
In our tendency to focus on what the law can’t do, we may have missed the beauty, delight, and hope of what the law can do. Though we long for the day when Christ will come and make all things new, Wilkin invites us to begin experiencing life on earth now as it is in heaven.
Every time we offer God our wholehearted worship and hallow his name, every time we rest from our labor, every time we restore dignity to our neighbor, every time we chose contentment instead of comparison, “we invite heaven down to earth” and “make it visible in the here and now” (135).
No more false dichotomies. The law is a means of grace. The rules enable relationship. The Ten Words are words of life.