And God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3)
The Ten Commandments have had immeasurable influence upon western culture, law, and morality. Whether they are displayed in courthouses or not, there are laws written against murder, theft, and adultery. In Christian theology, this is known as ‘the civil use of the law.’ God’s commandments, including the Ten Commandments, can be used by governments to curb our wickedness by the threat of punishment. Many of us, sinners that we are, might try and sin more deeply if we believed we could get away with it.
However, the use of the Ten Commandments in shaping civil law is only one of the uses for God’s law – his commandments. An additional way the ten commandments function in our lives is to present God’s perfect standard of righteousness before us, convict us of our sin, and lead us to Christ. As we read through the Ten Commandments, even if we have never murdered someone else or slept with our neighbor’s wife, we can readily see that we have not kept these commands fully. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And if we hear Jesus’ words that intensify the Ten Commandments to speak not only to our actions, but to our hearts, there is not a single command that we have not broken. In this way, the Ten Commandments can vividly present to us the problem of our sin before God and our need for a Savior.
The first two ways God’s law can work in our lives are public, in some sense. In shaping civil government, both Christians and non-Christians can benefit from the Ten Commandments. Since all of us have sinned and need a savior, the Ten Commandments as a mirror of our sinfulness can be experienced by all. However, the last major use of the law is ‘in-house’ or ‘for Christians only.’ The Ten Commandments can serve as a guide for grateful living in light of God’s grace. The fact that only Christians can allow the Ten Commandments to truly guide their lives is not a matter of religious bigotry. Apart from Christ’s redemption and our regeneration, the law only serves to condemn us. We only see God’s law and find ourselves wanting. Apart from being adopted in Christ, only the first two uses are available to us. However, once forgiven and raised from dead in sins to alive in Christ and having received the Holy Spirit, we can now walk in newness of life.