Text: Exodus 20:1-17
We’ve been working our way through the Augsburg Confession in Bible study, lately. This Confession is what marks us as Lutheran Christians. We have all promised multiple times that we accept it as true: in our confirmation vows, in my ordination vows, when you became a voting member of the congregation, were installed as an officer, and so on. Although Martin Luther was not the author of the Augsburg Confession, he himself said that it is still his teaching. After Luther died, the Evangelical theologians split over a few topics that come up in the Confession. One of these comes up in our readings this week. The issue concerns the Ten Commandments. Should they still be preached and taught in a Christian congregation? Some said yes; others said no.
We said earlier in the Psalm, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right…more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” (Psalm 19 English Standard Version) If we combine this with our Lord’s teaching in the Gospel that His Word remains forever, we can see that, yes, the Law of God in the Commandments should continually be preached and taught in Christian congregations. But, why? In the Ten Commandments, the Lord gives us the standard of what is right and wrong, shows us our need for Christ, and prompts us to love and serve our neighbor.
These three things are called the 3 Uses of the Law or the 3 Functions. In Confirmation we learned them as curb, mirror, and guide. Today, let’s remind ourselves what these mean. We heard in the Old Testament reading the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The Lord, rich in grace and mercy, led forth the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and brought them to His holy mountain. There, they witnessed the greatness of His might and the vastness of His glory. For 40 days and nights Moses remained at the top of the mountain and God spoke to him, inscribing on stone what He originally wrote on human hearts at the Beginning. When Moses came down to the base of the mountain, he held in his hands two tablets of stone. Written on these were the Ten Commandments of God.
The first function of the Law, the Ten Commandments, is to be a curb. The purpose of a curb is to keep cars on the road, so also bumpers with bowling balls at the alley. We see this function in the words, “You shall not.” In the Commandments, God sets before us the standard of what is right and what is wrong. We live in a time where many believe there is no objective right or wrong. As Christians, however, we confess that there is a standard of righteousness, and it is revealed to us here by God. With the Commandments, God sets a boundary between things we should and shouldn’t do. We should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. The Lord enforces these boundaries in our lives by earthly authorities. St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God…[governing authorities are] God’s servant, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13) All of us in our lives have been disciplined by parents and teachers, as well. The first function of the Law is to show us God’s standard of good and evil.
Ever since the Fall into Sin, however, we don’t receive the Commandments as such. Instead, we receive them as something bad – like when a little boy is told not to eat from the cookie jar. What is the first thing he does when he thinks no one is looking? He takes from the jar. Through the corruption of the Fall, we rebel against the Commandments. We disregard them or belittle them. We forget them and act against them. Often, we excuse or exempt ourselves from the Commandments, while at the same time measuring them heavily against those around us. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware of all this. Or, if we are, we hide it. Our Lord once said, “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” (Mt. 10)
The second function of the Law, and the main reason why it must remain in our preaching and teaching, is that it acts as a mirror. The Ten Commandments show us what good things we have failed to do, and what evil things we have done instead. Remember how the prophet Nathan went to King David after he had committed adultery. He said to him, “You are the man,” (2 Sam. 12) demonstrating from David’s own words that he deserved to die for his sins of adultery and murder. The Law also shows us our sin. When we rightly contemplate the Commandments, we learn from them how we have failed to love God and our neighbor and we hear from them what we deserve for our sin: death. Because we are sometimes blind to our own sinfulness, it is part of the pastor’s call to preach the Law to us, whether it be in a sermon or in a visit. When the pastor preaches the Law to us, it is not because he is angry with us or is trying to irritate us. He is trying to show us why Christ died for us.
The Law acts as a mirror to show us our sin, so that it can also point us to Christ, who bore our sin on the cross. When Nathan preached the Law to the king, David was convicted. He knew and felt his sin in his heart. Then Nathan said to him, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2 Sam. 12) Nathan preached the Law to David so he could also preach the Gospel. The sins that David committed – those sins are what Christ bore in His body on the tree. The same is true for you and me. The Commandments act as a mirror and show us our sins. They show which sins Christ died for – all of them. When the Commandments are preached to us and we realize that we, too, have sinned and are deserving of both death and hell, we can then take comfort in Christ’s death for us. We preach the Law so that we can also preach the Gospel. You cannot have one without the other.
Now we get to where the theologians argued over after Luther’s death. Some taught that Christians, who are redeemed by faith in Christ, no longer need to hear the Law. They simply do what is good out of love, without any further instruction. I mentioned a little boy before, who takes from the cookie jar when no one is looking. If we love our children, but never teach them what is right and wrong, can we expect them to do only good things? No, we love them and teach them what is right. We pray that, in time, they also will love what is good and hate what is evil. Although, initially our children listen for fear of punishment, we hope in time that they listen out of love and appreciation.
For the first two functions, alone, the Law ought to be preached and taught continually. The Law shows us God’s standard of right and wrong, it shows us our need for salvation. Because we continue in this impure flesh until the Resurrection, we will always need reminders. Therefore, there is a third thing the Law does, and it only does this among Chrstians. The Law also acts as a guide. It teaches how one lives a God-pleasing and righteous life. Through faith in Christ, we no longer see the Commandments as something bad, but as a true good. The Commandments are good, and we want to do them. Though we, by nature, were once children of wrath, by the working of the Holy Spirit we are now God’s children and we want to do what pleases Him. What sort of works please God? Works that are pleasing to God proceed from faith: in thanksgiving for the mercy we receive in Christ and according to the Commandments.
This was a struggle in the early history of Lutheranism (which, actually, also happened in the early Church). By God’s grace, we have been preserved in true teaching. The Commandments will continue to be taught in this Christian Church because they perform three functions. The Commandments show us God’s standard of good and evil actions. They show us our sins, for which Christ has died and risen. Lastly, they provide a guide for us as Christians seeking to love and serve both God and neighbor. Incredibly, the Law does these things all the same time. It will continue to do so until the day of our Lord’s return. When our bodies are raised, we shall be fully purified from sin and we will keep the Law perfectly, for the Law of God is good and wise. God grant this unto us all. Amen.