The purpose and contemporary relevance of the 10 Commandments remains a perpetual topic of debate among the greatest of scholarly theologians. How much harder it is to resolve among the less scripturally educated. Obviously, a single proper answer continues to evade universal acceptance due to confusion over interpretation, and prejudice stemming from preconceived ideas. Henceforth, in an attempt to simplify the reasons for such debate, a brief explanation of two basic schools of theology related to the subject should be prayerfully considered.
The 1st school marks a complete distinction between the Old and New Testaments, believing that the New COMPLETELY & ABSOLUTELY replaced the Old. The distinction centers on God’s covenants with certain of the patriarchs prior to Moses receiving the commandments on Sinai, and God’s dealing exclusively with the Israelites as a national identity to and through which God communicated. Every true prophet of God was an Israelite (aka: a Hebrew; a Jew).
Before the Mosaic Law God gave promises to the patriarchs, unto which (when accepted by faith), righteousness was attributed. The period of the early patriarchs beginning with Abraham was about 400 years before God raised up the nation of Israel. Once Israel became the chosen people of God, every other people group were considered Gentiles.Under the Mosaic Covenant the world was divided into two groups – Jews and Gentiles. Moses gave the Law to the Jews and for the Jews ONLY. God made NO covenant with any Gentiles.
The ritual of circumcision marked the Israelites as God’s people. So it was that there became a distinction in New Testament writings between those of the ‘Circumcision’, and everyone else – referred to as the ‘uncircumcised’.
“Ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus, you who sometimes were far off, are made near by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in Himself of two, one new man, so making peace; And that He might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” – Ep. 2:11-18.
Under the 1st school of theology, Jesus Christ became the perfect sacrifice for sin (the unblemished Lamb required by Mosaic Law) by keeping the Law perfectly, never breaking a single ordinance (which no other man could ever do on his own). Therefore, Jesus kept the law NOT as an example for all mankind to likewise strive to also accomplish, BUT to accomplish what He ALONE came into the world to do – to become God’s promised Savior by living a perfect (sinless) life in substitution and ransom on behalf of all mankind through His sacrificial death – [2Co. 5:21].
It was to obtain perfection for humanity by keeping the whole law, thereby proving to all men for all time that He (& He alone) was the Messiah – Ac. 7:52. He kept the Law perfectly, but we never could, nor can ever accomplish such perfection on our own. But having kept the Law perfectly on our behalf, He also clothes us with His Righteousness, because it is impossible to establish our own righteousness, never being able to keep the WHOLE Law ourselves.
Having completed His earthly mission, upon His resurrection & subsequent bodily ascension back into heaven (from whence He came) the New Covenant entered into force, annulling the Old Covenant once & for all .
“By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God”– Heb. 10:10-12.
Anyone who ever received an inheritance did so because their benefactor left a WILL. Such documents are commonly referred to as a Last Will & Testament. Often times the benefactor decides to make certain changes to the document. Whenever such occurs, the former Testament is rendered null and void. This is ALWAYS the case. The new testament completely replaces the former one. ONLY the provisions of the newer testament are binding or enforced.
This is universally applicable and understandable. Imagine the confusion and controversy over two wills with different stipulations. To remove any doubt about which is the actual intent of the benefactor, the most recent draft (the new testament) is always honored over the older, fully voiding any and all former testaments.
The 2nd school of theology recognizes the same about Christ’s redemptive earthly mission but disagrees about the thoroughness of it, insisting that He did NOT replace the ENTIRE Old Covenant, but certain aspects of the Law remain in force, specifically the 10 Commandments.
However, Jesus Himself summed up the whole of the Law into TWO commandments.
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets” – Mt.22:37-40.
It is quite interesting that the same people who disregard the ABSOLUTE replacement of the WHOLE Law by Christ’s COMPLETED earthly mission, will also point to doing what Jesus did (keeping the law) as a requirement for attaining righteousness. They contend that since Jesus did it, we should also do it. But the following passages refute such an idea.
“For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect”– Ro. 4:14.
“Israel, pursuing the Law of Righteousness, has not attained to the Law of Righteousness”– Ro.9:31.
“If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died in vain” – Gal. 2:21.
“If there had been a Law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the Law” – Gal. 3:21.
However, their dedication to observing the Law remains half-hearted. Though they passionately defend observance of the Law as still necessary for pleasing God, they fail to sufficiently scrutinize how much of the Law is adequate. There were far more than 10 commandments given by Moses, and Jesus kept them ALL. If as they profess, we should also do it because Jesus did it, then doesn’t it logically follow that we should also suffer and die for the glory of God? Who rightly decides HOW much of Christ’s earthly ministry was accomplished on our behalf, and what of His ministry did He merely model for His true followers to continue?
NOT to oppose those who indeed did follow Christ in death. Many Christian martyrs have willingly laid down there lives for the glory of God. But we are not ALL called to such fates. Neither are we all expected to follow the Law just because Jesus did. Such dogma misunderstands scriptural ‘atonement’, stripping from Christ’s glory by appropriating part of it for one’s self.
Many forget (or maybe are ignorant to) the fact that what Jesus preached to the exclusively Jewish audiences still under the Old Covenant (He having not yet completed His redemptive purposes) was prophetic proclamation, pointing them to His claims as Messiah.
Of course, the Jews as a nation ultimately rejected Jesus – [Jn. 1:11].
A careful unbiased research into the New Testament reveals that one of the 1st factions in the early church was a debate over whether or not new converts to the faith needed to be circumcised, which was the initiation in Old Testament Law, into Judaism.
The Apostles declared that circumcision (becoming a Jew) had nothing to do with the New Covenant, and rebuked the Judaizes for attempting to bring new converts under the Old Covenant – [Ac. 15:1-41].
Additionally, much of Paul’s epistles deal with the distinction between the Old & New Covenants, insisting that the Old has been completely replaced by the New.
“Tell me, you who want to be under the Law, are you not aware of what the Law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free – she is our mother.” – Gal. 4:21-26.
If, as a believer you are prone to accept the 2nd school’s ideology over the 1st, then there is a need to resolve the issue as to why Jesus reduced the whole Law down to two, if the Law or the 10 commandments are still in effect for new converts to need to follow. Scripture explains this.
“For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” – Heb. 9:15.
Are any saved by keeping the Law, or are all saved by grace through faith?
Notice that the question infers one or the other, NOT both!
“God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God“– Ep. 2:5-8.
If Christ’s sacrifice, for which He proved Himself the qualified sacrificial ‘Lamb of God’ EXPRESSLY by keeping the whole Law PERFECTLY as the PROPITIATION for OUR sin, was not ABSOLUTELY COMPLETE (as in everything necessary to secure salvation for us) then what was the purpose?
“Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” – Gal. 3:3-5.
The entire Old covenant’s sacrificial system was merely as SHADOW of the BETTER to come – [Col. 2:17]. A thorough reading of Romans, Galatians, Colossians, & Hebrews repeats that declaration over & over. If Christ did not come to REPLACE the ineffective Old Covenant (because no man could keep it), then why did He subject Himself to death, being the ONLY sinless one ever to exist? He certainly did NOT die for His sin, but being sinless, He died for our sin.
He paid IN FULL the penalty for breaking the Law by His substitutionary death. The price for redemption, the ransom for our souls, has been already PAID IN FULL by Christ. What then remains yet to be done by keeping ordinances for which transgressions we have already been acquitted? The ONLY logical answer is that many are still attempting to establish their OWN righteousness, hoping to somehow be MORE pleasing to God than that which Christ has ALREADY accomplished for us. Such people basically insult God’s grace, as Paul wrote:
“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness comes by the Law, then Christ died in vain” – Gal.2:21.
Those who hold to continuing an observation to the Law fail to recognize the important theology related to the eternal PURPOSE of God becoming man and coming to earth.
” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – Jn. 1:14.
Jesus took OUR sin upon Himself. It was because of OUR inability to keep the Law that He kept it for us! The several hundreds of years the Old Covenant was in force was ALWAYS intended to serve as proof that no man can keep the Law. Evidenced by multiple narratives that allow us to observe individual lives exposed and transparent through divine inspiration, God so loved mankind that He became one of us to give Himself for us.
“ For He has made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin; that we might be made the Righteousness of God in Him”– 2Co. 5:21.
Notice it says, “that we might be made the Righteousness of God in Him”, NOT that we may be made the Righteousness of God by keeping the 10 commandments. In doing so, Jesus became OUR Savior. Savior from what? The LAW and its curse (sin and death)!
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continues not in ALL things which are written in the book of the Law to do them” – Gal. 3:10.
It is ALL or nothing, cursed or not cursed. Certainly, the 10 Commandments fall under the phrase “ALL things which are written in the book of the Law“.
Those who continue to walk according to the Law should heed the previous admonition from Galatians 3:10. The fact is that the 10 commandments are merely a sample condensed version of the whole Law. The Jews came to refer to the Law of Moses as the Torah. There are actually 613 commandments in it, so striving to keep 10 falls far short of the requirement to keep ALL things written in the Old Covenant..
Scripture further reveals that without the Law there is NO indictment of sin. Becoming SIN for us, Christ (He who knew NO sin) introduced a more excellent covenant under grace, by replacing the Old Covenant established by observance of Law rather than GRACE.
“By so much was Jesus made a surety of a BETTER testament” – Heb. 7:22.
What we could never do, Jesus did for us. If you believe that, scripture declares that you’ve passed from death unto life.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that hears my word, and believes on Him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” – Jn. 5:24.
If by believing in Christ, you have eternal life, shall not come into condemnation, and have passed from death unto life, what can observance to ritual or the 10 Commandments add? Why do you want to be under the Law whose only purpose has always been to merely convict, NOT save?
“Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believes”– Ro. 10:4.
To think that we must do something to add to Christ’s completed sacrifice for our sins is to insult Him as having NOT done enough, we must still do our part by obedience to the 10 Commandments. There is absolutely no concept of such CO-SAVIOR anywhere in scripture.
Old Testament saints were NOT saved by keeping the Law; they were saved by believing God’s promise to send a Savior.
“For if the inheritance be of the Law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serves the Law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made” – Gal. 3:18, 19.
NOTICE: The inclusion of the word ’till’ in the previous verse indicates a time when the Law would become void.
New Testament saints are saved by the SAME faith in God’s promise, except that the Savior has come. We are saved by Jesus Christ our Savior, NOT by observing the law, the 10 Commandments, or even the two ‘greatest commandments’ proclaimed by Jesus.
“ALL (that means total & complete) the LAW & Prophets (that means the entire Old Testament) hang on these” – Mt. 22:40.
Why didn’t Jesus say instead in response to questions regarding the importance of the commandments (which were actually 613) that we must obey the 10 Commandments?
The reason is clearly that He was introducing the soon coming shift away from the Law & works to the New Covenant under grace & faith. He was saying in effect, that ALL the Law was to bring people to the true teacher (Christ).
“Before faith came, we were kept under the Law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster”– Gal. 3:23-25.
The whole purpose was to show man their need for God by revealing God’s system of righteousness.
“If there had been a Law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the Law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe”– Gal. 3:21, 22.
If any man could attain righteousness by observing the Law, he would not need saving. But no one could ever attain righteousness by keeping the Law.
“And we trust in God through Christ: not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also has made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraved in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more does the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelled. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remains is glorious.“– 2Co. 3:4-11.
ONLY GOD is righteous, that was the point of the Law. To show that we are ALL unrighteous. But God gives freely (grace) HIS Righteousness to ALL who call upon the Savior & accept His sacrifice for their sins & trust Him COMPLETELY to save them & grant them eternal life.
The Old Testament dispensation was the ministration of death, but the New Testament is life. The Law made known sin, and the curse of death and wrath of God; it showed us God above us, and God against us. But the gospel makes known grace, and Emmanuel, God with us. Therein is the righteousness of God by faith revealed; and this shows us that the just shall live by His faith; this makes known the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ, for obtaining the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Those who continue to observe the commandments under obligation (all 613 of them, the 10 Commandments, or only the two) are NOT trusting COMPLETELY in Christ, they are ‘hedging their bet’ by continuing in observing the Law, just in case Christ & grace don’t turn out to be fully sufficient. They reject the notion that the New Testament COMPLETELY REPLACES the Old.
Obviously, if the 10 Commandments which are part of the Old Testament are to be observed today, then the New Testament does not COMPLETELY replace the Old. But the problem with that logic is who decides HOW much of the Old Testament along with the 10 Commandments is also still in force. To accept such logic requires that vast portions of the New Testament be ignored, because they fully refute such ideology.
The two Testaments are incompatible if both are in force. One or the other will be honored by the AUTHOR, but not both. If the New actually does replace the Old (as is the more likely case), then observance of the former insults the CREATOR of the New. Conversely, if the Old was sufficient, but only up to a certain time (that time being the appearance of Jesus Christ), then it is logical that it had served its purpose and needed annulling.
Such is the case. The Old Testament led us to the Savior, by showing us our need for a Savior, in that the Law and all its commandments were impossible for anyone to keep. Once it had accomplished its intended purpose (to point us to Christ) the New Testament could then replace it –— COMPLETELY.
Nowhere but in the realm of religion is there such continual contradiction of ordinary terms! ‘ABSOLUTE‘ in any other arena would be acknowledged as the extreme embracing of one thing over the other, without exception — not “yeah, but”.
The term ‘REPLACED’ would also find full acceptance unilaterally as meaning one in exchange for the other, not “only partially”. The simple terms ‘old’ and ‘new’ in every application infer the old is inferior to the new; the new always replaces the old, because it is the improved version – a BETTER one.
The concept of ‘COMPLETE FULFILLMENT’ would also be universally understood in any legal transaction, but the religious community can’t seem to grasp its application to the two separate legal contracts between God & mankind.
Those holding faith in the 2nd school of thought regarding the Old & New Testaments must do so by borrowing from that faith which they profess in Christ as Savior and help it along. To COMPLETELY & ABSOLUTELY trust Christ requires placing ALL one’s trust in HIM & HIS sacrifice ALONE.
To say that you trust Him but continue to trust also ANYTHING else (religion, doctrine, works, observation of Law, ritual, keeping the 10 Commandments, etc.) is evidence that you do NOT trust Christ ABSOLUTELY & COMPLETELY.
Such lack of total faith may be why He said of so many that He NEVER knew them.
“And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me“ – Mt. 7:23.
This explanation is based upon an exhaustive (meaning absolutely thorough) study of scripture, both Old & New Testaments. Proper understanding will require the serious student to read all scripture references within the original context, NOT merely the single verse assigned to a statement. Sadly, not many will take the time themselves to competently research the matter with an open heart & non-biased approach.
This is not to imply that a Christian shouldn’t keep the 10 Commandments. But it should be understood that whether or not born again Christians keep the 10 Commandments is a matter of choice, NOT demand. True believers are under grace, not Law. When led by the Holy Spirit true believers will not violate any commandment of God, but it will be the power of the Holy Spirit within them and working through them that accomplishes the task.
“For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” – Phil. 2:13.
What is greatly misunderstood is that New Testament believers are no where expected to perform works of righteousness under their own natural abilities. They have been given the Holy Spirit which was the source of Christ’s power. Jesus performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, modeling for his followers how to do likewise after He had gone and the Spirit was poured out upon them [Acts 2].
“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” – Ac. 1:8.
Typically however, the debate continues due also to a misunderstanding of what establishes what. By this I mean, that under grace a believer’s life naturally produces spiritual fruit, which is consistent with the 10 Commandments. But the fruit is produced NOT by the individual’s attempt to comply with the commandments, but rather the fruit results from surrendering to the leading of the Holy Spirit within them.
So it is that the Spirit actually produces the fruit & the Spirit also continues the good works until the perfection of the saints.
“For it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” – Phil. 2:13.
Keeping the commandments for a true believer is therefore NOT an attempt to do so by obligation or necessity. Rather it is the natural fruit of trusting God completely, not any longer leaning on one’s own ability to perform, but trusting God to be true to His promises.
Here then, is the biggest difference between those who advocate continuing in the Law & those who do not. Are you under grace, or Law? Are you still under the curse, or have you been set free from it?
“As many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse, but Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” – [Gal. 3:10,13].
For further insight into the relevance of the Law for Christians please read my other Articles:
Has the Entire Law Been Replaced?
Salvation: Obedience / Works vs. Faith / Grace
The Relativity of the Law For Christians