Perfect Law and Liberty

November 5, 2018 Series: Exodus Scripture: Exodus 20:1-7 by Chris Strevel

When Men Reject God’s Law

Ten Suggestions or Ten Commandments?

The Ten Commandments or Ten Words (Deut. 4:13) are the heart of God’s revelation in Exodus. The Lord brought his people to Sinai to hear these words. They could not bear his voice, for their hearts were not right with him and the peacemaking mediation of Jesus Christ was not yet clearly revealed, but millions heard his voice. The Ten Commandments are at the heart of his covenant with Israel. They are the heart of God’s will for all men. They are the basis of God’s judgment upon men and nations, yesterday and today (Isa. 24:5; Rom. 1:18-32; 3:19). They set forth our duty in the main spheres of life: with him, in our families, and in society. They are the written form of the law of God written upon the heart of all men. Without the Ten Commandments, we cannot understand God’s holiness, the right way to live, or the reason for the disintegration of sinful man and his societies. Nature and nature’s law will no longer help us, for we have gouged out our eyes; apart from special revelation, natural revelation remains hazy due to our blindness and cannot bring us to righteousness, peace, and joy. The Ten Commandments are thus inescapable. Obedience to them brings peace and righteousness; disobedience brings judgment, misery, and chaos.

 Man’s collective experience and history verify these claims beyond contradiction, at least for those with eyes to see. When to this we add Calvary, which is inexplicable without Sinai, we treat them as ten suggestions, as if God does not really require man’s obedience to his law. Polytheism and multiculturalism have bred moral relativism, fed our idolatrous tendencies, made us ripe for evil social theories, and cast down truth and righteousness into the streets. Yes, God has forbidden us to treat his name casually, but rampant blasphemy has driven the fear of God far, far away; in its place, lawlessness, lies, and broken promises. Yes, we should keep one day in seven unto him as a holy day of worshipful rest, but this would interfere with our recreations and pleasures – and so many in the church feel the same way. We look for ways to explain away the fourth commandment, even as society burns under consumerism, dissatisfaction, and utter weariness because there is no Sabbath in our land. And as for theft, adultery, and the rest, if no one is hurt by stealing time, office supplies, or cheating on tests, then who is harmed? Or if we indulge lusts and become utterly impure and impotent as a result of pornography, well, everyone else is doing the same thing, and sexual freedom must not be diminished, regardless of its cost to the individual, the family, and society. If hell is the cost of gratification, so be it. The lawlessness of our age is a heavy burden to bear, and it tempts us to live with little regard for his law. We are barely surprised by the lawlessness that surrounds us. It is the poisonous air we breathe.

To Walk as Redeemed Men Everywhere

Israel breathed this same air in Egypt. God redeemed them for himself. There can be no full understanding of the significance of the Ten Commandments and their continuing authority over us, unless we pay careful attention to their preface: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Redemption is thus the foundation of law, of our obedience to God. Far from being a program of self-justification through works or a replacement for the covenant of grace, the law was given to redeemed men to teach them the clear way to walk in thankful obedience with him and in peaceful righteousness with men. This obedience is comprehensive – in recognizing and worshipping God according to his word, fearing and adoring him, keeping his Sabbath; in the family with honor and obedience; in society by respecting purity and property rights, and preserving truth and integrity. This is the Old Testament counterpart to the New Testament’s, “Whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). In the Ten Commandments, the Lord fleshes out what it means to live for his glory in the concrete duties and relations of life. He never leaves it to man to determine what pleases him. He would not have us follow our feelings or the herd of humanity but his revealed will in Scripture. “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have the right to eat of the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14). “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).

Jesus and the Law

These plain declarations of Scripture cannot be overturned by a simple appeal to Jesus, as if his coming changed the moral law of God. He denied any such alteration and made obedience to God’s commands the standard of holiness and justice in his kingdom (Matt. 5:17-20). Neither he nor his apostles taught a different standard, whether an inward impulse, the leading of the Spirit, or a reduced moral scope, i.e., the Sermon on the Mount or love. His teaching was a necessary corrective against Pharisaical abuse of God’s law, and he said clearly that they had nullified God’s law by their traditions (Matt. 15:3; Mark 7:9). The problem with the Pharisees and second temple Judaism is not that they were rigorists when it came to the Ten Commandments narrowly or Scripture more broadly, but they had utterly forsaken God’s law in favor of their own traditions.

 Thus, we cannot posit Jesus Christ against the Ten Commandments, for keeping God’s law was his delight (Ps. 40:8). He died on the cross not to do away with God’s law but because we had broken it. Before we could be redeemed, he had to obey the law and suffer for our lawbreaking. Now that he is raised from the dead and poured out his Spirit, we are empowered through union with him to keep God’s law, not as a condemning covenant, for he satisfied that aspect of the law. We obey because we love him (John 14:12). This is the new commandment – that we have a new nature, new power, and new clarity in loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and in loving our neighbor as ourselves. This we do with his holy law as our guide.



The Perfect Law of Liberty

No Longer under the Law

Nevertheless, it is perhaps surprising to hear James describe the Ten Commandments as the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). Are we, or are we not, under the law? We are not under the law as demanding our judgment for breaking it. Jesus bore our curse by becoming sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). We are not under the law as a covenant prescribing death to transgressors, for Jesus Christ died in our place to satisfy God’s justice against transgressors of his law. We are not under the law conditionally, for Jesus has kept the conditional element of the older covenant and therefore secured its promise of righteousness for all who believe upon his name and walk in the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-2). In emphasizing that the Ten Commandments summarize the “eternal rule of a devout and holy life,” as Calvin once wrote, we need not fear coming back under bondage. Much of that bondage lay in the ceremonies that set forth Christ but could not give the reality of peace with God and freedom of a cleansed conscience (Acts 15:10). We have these in Christ, and therefore our relationship to the law is not condemnation but liberty, not bondage but the freedom of God’s children to walk in joyful obedience to him by the constant help of the Spirit of truth and holiness.

Three Uses of the Law

A great deal of the debilitating confusion about God’s law would be swept away if we would but pay closer attention to the three uses of the law. These divisions were not of human devising but take seriously the whole revelation of Scripture pertaining to the function of the law. The first use is the condemnatory or pedagogical (Gal. 3:19). One certain purpose of Sinai and its legislation was to reveal God’s holiness and justice, and along with them his separation from sinners. The law did not do away with the grace and promise of the Abrahamic covenant (Gal. 3:19), but it was a necessary adjunct to it. As sinners, we must be confronted with two main realities. First, we have broken God’s law and are corrupt in every part. And because of this, second, we are under condemnation and judgment. We cannot rescue ourselves from the curse that must fall upon us, unless God intervenes, which he did by fulfilling his promise of a Mediator, Jesus Christ. Thus, the law was “given because of transgressions.” The law reveals God’s righteousness and shuts every mouth. In so doing, it drives us to Jesus Christ, so that we may be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24).

This is the point Paul made in Romans 9:30-10:4. Failure to attend to the context has led many to interpret 10:4 to mean that the coming of Jesus Christ does away with the law altogether. This is actually the opposite of Paul’s argument. Why did the Jews, who sought after righteousness, not obtain it, while the Gentiles, who did not seek it, obtain justifying righteousness (9:30)? Did God’s entire program fail? Paul’s answer will surprise those who think that the reason the Jews rejected Jesus Christ is that they were so committed to the Old Testament that they thought he was bringing in a different way of salvation. The Jews sought righteousness by works, not by faith (9:32). They completely misunderstood the older covenant revelation, as if it prescribed salvation by lawkeeping, or at least left the door open to obtaining righteousness by works. They neither believed nor obeyed the thrust of the Scriptures (John 5:37).  Quoting from Isaiah, the apostle shows that salvation was always through God’s appointed Messiah (9:33). The reason the Jews rejected Christ is because they were deceived as to the nature of righteousness. Can man mount up to God on the wings of his own works? Sinai should have taught them otherwise. The law prescribes death to lawbreakers. In fact, Christ is the goal of the law (10:4). “End” often carries with it the idea of terminus or goal, and that it is the meaning here. The entire thrust of the law was not to lead men to establish their own righteousness (10:3) but to look for God’s gift of righteousness through his Son. 

The second and third uses of the law follow the first, and in a sense, assume that the first has served its purpose – that we have been confronted with God’s holiness and righteous judgment revealed in the law and then driven by our sin and guilt into the arms of Jesus Christ, there to find our righteousness before God in his obedience and our cleansing in his wounds. Once we have faced ourselves honestly by looking into the “perfect law of liberty,” and then fled to our Savior for refuge from the wrath to come, how do we live? Our whole relationship to the law is changed. It no longer condemns us. We are clean, to use Jesus’ words. When we step back into the mud of sin, he will wash our feet as our advocate before the Father and our eternal righteousness (1 John 1:9-2:2). How do we say “Thank you,” to him, although this is much too low a phrase to indicate how our hearts should burn within us each time we think that our sins nailed him to the tree, melt when we think how much he loved us so that he swallowed Sinai’s curse in utter agony?  How do we express love for him? We keep his commandments (John 14:15; 15:9-11). Thus, the second use of the law is to teach us the way to live to please God in all things, to show that we truly have the faith of Jesus by keeping God’s commandments (Rev. 14:12).

The third use is the civil use, which pertains to our social fear and love for God, that the law restrains evil doers and shows us the way to civil or national blessings through corporate obedience to God. This third use is hardly considered in a secular society. Wisdom, however, is justified by its children, and a tree is known by its fruits. When redeemed people become serious again about pleasing God in their public relations and national allegiances, when we are convicted of the insult done to God’s majesty when violators of his law go unpunished, when we finally grow weary under the oppressive lies of secularism and its multitude of tyrannous gods, we shall again become serious, as our forefathers many centuries ago, in seeking to apply God’s national wisdom in his statutes and judgments revealed to Moses (Deut. 4:6-8). God’s civil righteousness, both negatively in punishing evil doers against his government of the world, and positively in promoting his glory, revealed in his law, is unparalleled in its wisdom, equity, and peaceful fruits.

Under the Law to Christ

This is part of what the apostle meant when he spoke of himself as “under the law to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). He was not without law. God’s law is “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). God’s law is now mediated to the believer through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This means that we are no longer under its curse. Do this and live; do this and die. These things were stated not because the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works but in order to reveal the “exceeding sinfulness of sin” (Rom. 7:13). In showing our inability, the Lord also revealed the curse that lay upon us and drew us to his promise of mercy in the coming Redeemer. We shall never flee to his promise unless we are seriously aroused by the evil of sin and seriously displeased with ourselves. The law shows the certain doom of sinners if they stand uncovered and guilty before the righteous Judge. Thus, the law came with needed threats. It could not in itself give life. This grace came by Jesus Christ. He removed the threat by receiving the sword of justice into his holy breast and thus satisfied God’s just claims against us. We receive through faith in him complete acquittal; we are declared righteous. We relate to the law in him. O, this pleases God? It pleases him to worship him as he commands? To seek sexual purity? To be content with what he has given me? To respect my neighbor’s property and not steal it by force or legally through wealth redistribution schemes? I will obey the God who has redeemed me, not to earn any credit with him, for how much more credit can I have than what Jesus Christ has purchased for me by his precious blood? I will obey the God who so loved me, not in my own strength, but with the Spirit of Christ that strengthened him to obey in our flesh. Thus, every believer rejoices to be under the law to Christ, under his mediation – forgiven, declared righteous, regenerated and sealed by the Spirit, brought into the kingdom of his power, and joyfully seeking to please my Savior who loved and gave himself for me.

Interpretation and Application

Heart and Conduct

The heart thrust of God’s law should have been evident from the beginning (Deut. 4:9,29; 5:29; 6:5). The idea that God’s law is concerned only with narrowly defined outward behavior was the particular target of our Lord’s teaching in his famous sermon. “You have heard it said” are not quotations from the law, as if he were correcting, adding, or doing away with it, but quotations and summations of scribal glosses on God’s law. These always had the effect of minimizing the heart thrust of God’s commands. At the same time, each of God’s commands regulates outward conduct. The Lord said that we must not lust after a woman (Matt. 5:28); he also said that we must possess our bodies in sanctification and honor (1 Thess. 4:4). This means that he is concerned with the heart as the fountain of character, and with the body and life as the fruit of character. This refutes the modern era that “I can do what I want as long as my heart loves God.” Actually, whether or not one’s heart is right and loves God is reflected in one’s outward words and actions. There is no splitting of reality between outside and inside; all must be reformed by the power of God’s Spirit, who writes God’s law upon our hearts (Heb. 8:8-10), thus renewing our entire nature away from lawbreaking and toward joyful obedience.

The tenth commandment compellingly reveals the inwardness of the law as revealed to Moses, and not simply through later clarification. No coveting means that God’s law regulated the heart. Coveting, discontentedness with our earthly lot and possessions, is not something you can see outwardly. It is a heart sin before it ever comes to outward expression in consumerism, unnecessary luxury debt, socialism, etc. The presence of such a command is unparalleled in the moral codes of antiquity. None dreamed it possible to curb the sins and cravings of the human heart. Can you imagine a human authority commanding, “Be content with what you have, or I will punish you.” Only outward behavior was prescribed, for only outward behavior had observable effects. In giving such a prohibition, God claims to be the Judge and Lord of our hearts, to see every desire and inclination of our hearts. It is compelling that the last commandment serves as something of final rebuke to our pride. God thereby drives us to seek a remedy for our heart corruption in his promise of mercy in Jesus Christ. It is this particular command, if we took it more seriously, that reveals our utter inability to curb our fallen depravity and desires, as well as the impossibility of being justified by our lawkeeping. We must have an external power, a quickening, saving visitation from God himself, for each man finds covetousness a daily, strangling evil, as the apostle did (Rom. 7:7).


When interpreting God’s law as a whole and each commandment, the Scripture as a whole is our context. This is the reason, for example, that we cannot simply take the Sermon on the Mount as our Lord’s full revelation upon any moral question. He certainly provides important clarification at certain points, and we must take him seriously, but he is interacting with abuses against the Ten Commandments. This means that he did not come as the giver of a new law but as the restorer of God’s pure and holy law. Many Christian ethicists forget this, and thus make the Sermon on the Mount the basis of a supposedly Christian ethic, when it is in fact a restoration of the Ten Commandments and never intended to stand by itself, in isolation from the entire will of God revealed in Scripture.  Moreover, when it comes to any of the Ten Commandments, we must take the whole of God’s word into account to see its breadth and proper application. The first commandment, for example, directs us to worship God alone. Other commands clarify what that means in practice – no other gods, not listening to false prophets, which by implication would condemn political polytheism, not teaching our children false gods. One of the beauties of God’s law is that the “part stands for the whole,” or synecdoche. The basic moral code God has given to us is not exhaustive or exhausting. It assumes we shall listen to our Father’s voice clarifying and applying these basic commandments. They cover in general all our duty to God and our duty to man. Beyond this, nothing is lacking to direct us in the right way to love God and man (Matt. 22:37-38).

Let us consider the seventh commandment. In forbidding adultery, God is stating, first, that the marriage relationship between man and woman – remember the Scriptural context – is the only legitimate expression of human sexuality. The seventh commandment equally forbids pre-marital sexuality, auto-eroticism, and sodomy. In effect, all forms of sexuality are forbidden except within the context of consecrated marriage. Many other laws and declarations of Scripture can be brought forward to give the full picture of the Bible’s sexual ethic, but the principle of synecdoche helps us focus in on the main point: no sex anywhere but in marriage. No debate, end of story. This is God’s will for man. Thus, the church’s response to sodomy, which is an egregious and morally burned out perversion of sexuality (Rom. 1:25-28), should perhaps begin with a condemnation of the sexual revolution in general, the flight of women from their centrality in the home and family, and the wickedness of men in seeking any form of sexual fulfillment except by dying to themselves and laying down their lives to their wives. Perhaps our message would be heard more clearly and with less accusation of hypocrisy, if we submitted ourselves to God’s law so that the beam lust and infidelity would be removed from our eye first. Then, humbled by God’s grace and zealous to live as his pure virgins in our marriages, our witness would be more compelling and our children would have set before them daily a beautiful picture of purity and joy.

Positive and Negative

The most obvious feature of the Ten Commandments is that nine of ten are stated negatively. God’s law brings liberty – from a host of regulations, especially the suffocating manmade regulations that result when sinners throw off the basic yoke of God’s prohibitions. Stated negatively, entire categories of sin are forbidden to us. God simply says, “I am your Lord; do not do this; stay away from this; this is not permitted to you.” Therefore, he does not need to forbid every possible version of a type or genre of sin. Now, some would like for the law to be stated in this way, for if they do not find their favorite sin prohibited, they assume it is permissible or has slid under God’s radar. By stating his law negatively, he fences us in and makes it impossible to throw off his yoke by subterfuge. No forms of idolatry are acceptable. All worship must be commanded. All forms of theft are forbidden.  And, whenever there is a prohibition, the opposite virtue is commanded. We must refrain from bearing false witness, which means we must defend our own and our neighbor’s good name. We must speak the truth, in love and justice (Eph. 4:15). Thus, some degree of biblical casuistry is required, for in stating his will simply and negatively, the Lord would have us to apply it to the entire range of theological, family, and social relations and duties.


Wonderfully Broad

David once wrote of God’s law, “I have seen an end of all perfection: your commandment is exceeding broad” (Ps. 119:96). Our Lord’s wisdom shines forth in his law, for in giving us, for example, a commission to work diligently for six days, then much of our modern penchant for entertainment is condemned outright, and a different kind of life is presented to us – not working for the weekend, sports dominated, or gaming, but working diligently to please our Lord and Savior. This is not opposed to rest, but legitimate rest is not escape, but worship, refreshment in God, and fellowship with him in his saints! With each of his commandments, there is this same breadth. If we are not to commit adultery, this means that we are to seek the most living and mutually satisfying love life with our spouse. So that we can have such a relationship and fulfill the seventh commandment, we must fulfill the fourth, especially when we are young, so that by working in a legitimate calling, we may provide for a family and seek a wife. Thus, God’s commands are interconnected. Just as violating one violates all (James 2:10-11), so keeping one will bring you to another. God’s law is a perfect law of liberty because it is unified and thereby reflects the simplicity of its Author. He is not “this plus this,” and we should never try to make one of his attributes superior or more essential than another. He is what he is. His law reflects this same attribute. It is no wonder that when we keep it, we walk at liberty (Ps. 119:45), for we walk in harmony with God our Savior.

Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts

1. Give an example of evil in our land that is the direct result of breaking one of God’s commandments?

2. What is the purpose of the law in the life of a child of God?

3. What does it mean to be no longer under the law?

4. What are some errors that are made about the law when the three uses of the law are ignored?

5. How does the law lead us to Christ? See Galatians 3:24.6.

6. According to Romans 9:30-10:4, what is the reason that the Jews did not obtain righteousness?

7. How is Christ the goal of the law? See Romans 10:4.

8. What is the believer’s relationship to the law?

9. What is the third use of the law – and when will men want it?

10. How are we under the law to Christ?

11. What is the mean by the “inwardness” of the law? How is the 10th commandment especially compelling and unique in this regard?

12. What is meant by synecdoche? Give an example.

13. Why are 9 of the 10 commandments stated negatively?