In the early 2000s, Alabama’s Chief Judge ordered to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse. If we are no longer under the law, was that really such a big deal? Do Christians need to follow the Ten Commandments? If we are no longer under the law, why does James write that “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being… a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (Jas 1:25)? Wasn’t the law a burden? What are we doing looking at the law? (I feel a bit like I’m Rob Bell with all these questions.)
Peter Leithart, President of the Theopolis Institute and author of many books and commentaries, has written a book with a healthy perspective on what God’s Ten Words mean to us today. He shows that neither God’s law nor the commandments were a burden as some may think. Instead they are “‘a personal declaration’ that reveals Yahweh’s character. Like Proverbs, they’re a Father-son talk. The ten new-creative words are designed to form Israel into an image of his Father” (pp. 4–5).
We can say these Ten Words are for us. As Leithart points out, the New Testament writes quoted them, church fathers appealed to them, Thomas Aquinas commented on them, Reformational confessions and catechisms teach them, prayer books use them in our worship, and church architects carved them on the walls of our churches (p. 1). God “spoke” ten times in Genesis 1 when he created, and now he speaks Ten Words to the newly rescued Israel. But who is Israel? Israel is God’s son (Ex 4:22) whom Yahweh delivered out of Pharaoh’s evil clutches and the bonds of Egyptian slavery.
Yet is it freedom to receive these Ten Words? Eight of the ten commands tell us “not” to do something. Yet, as James writes, the Torah is the perfect law of liberty (Jas 1:25; 2:12). Why? Leithart notes,
A community dominated by disrespect for parents, workaholism, violence, envy, theft, and lies isn’t free… In the world God made… things aren’t free to do or be anything they please. They’re free when they become what they are. An acorn is free to become an oak, not an elephant. The Ten Words guide Israel to grow up to be what he is, the son who rules in his Father’s house (see Gal 4:1–7) (p. 5).
This is a short book that is packed with insight. Israel is the Son who failed, but Jesus is the Son who obeyed all of God’s words. Leithart observes, “The Ten Words are a character portrait of Jesus, the Son of God” (6).
Leithart shows how Lutherans and Catholics, the Reformers, and Orthodox Christians number the Ten Commandments (they do it differently, you see). Then, in characteristic Leithart style, he illuminates how the Ten Words can’t really be separated from each other. In order to keep God first, you must obey the other commands. If we covet, we desire other things and are no thankful for what God has given us, thus despising the life we have (even if in small measure). By coveting, we make idols, worshiping something else than God and committing marital-infidelity to the divine Husband. We end up becoming a “false witness about the living God” (p. 17). In fact, “[e]very commandment is a window through which we view the whole Decalogue” (p. 17).
Leithart covers a slew of topics within short chapters. In regards to honoring thy father and thy mother, the Fifth Word “assumes parenthood is inescapable” (p. 66). Most people will become parents. Yet today our reproductive technologies have “eroded that assumption” (p. 66). After giving a few examples of the new world we live in, Leithart notes that “family is detached from biology” (p. 66). Though adoption is a gift and blessing to many, it is necessary because of the breakdown of family. Yet homes can be put back together in the church, the “Christian’s primary brotherhood” (p. 67). And as parents symbolize God to their children, how the children respond to their parents shows how they respond to God (putting a large responsibility on parents to image God well). We should speak well of our parents, ready to serve and listen them. We receive what they give us and give them thanks in return. We submit to their correction and discipline.
Before you can get away with thinking, “But I’m an adult now,” Leithart writes, “In fact, the commandment is primarily addressed to adult children” (p. 69). Children are to care for their parents in their old age. The Fifth Word, revealing God’s character to us, illuminates “the inner life of God” to us as well (p. 70). The Son listens, trust, submits, and obeys the Father, and it is the Father who glorifies the Son! The Father honors the Son and listens to his prayers. This Trinitarian way of life should be reflected in the households of God’s people.
This is a fantastic book. Leithart shows how the Ten Words is not to be read and understood as dull and monotonous. They point us to God’s good and gracious character that he shows us ultimately in Jesus. We can look to Jesus for the ideal and receive his forgiveness when we fail. You’ll have to read elsewhere about opinions on Alabama and the Ten Commandments, but for now, Leithart helps us see how the gospel shines an even greater light on the Ten Words and how they apply to all areas of our life.
- Series: Christian Essentials
- Author: Peter J. Leithart
- Hardcover: 104 pages
- Publisher: Lexham Press (February 5, 2020)
Buy it on Amazon or from Lexham Press
Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.