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The Purpose of the Ten Commandments

Religion News Service reports below that former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore intends to appeal his case over posting the Ten Commandments to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last month, Judge Moore lost an earlier appeal to get his job back. It has already cost over a half-million dollars of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Alabama taxpayers’ money to move the court case through proper channels. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Some will say the money was well spent on a man who had courage to challenge laws many insist are hostile to Christians. Others will say the money is wasted on a man whose convictions of the heart overrode the good judgment that qualified him for the bench in the first place.
 
Most of the articles on Judge Moore’s stand have revolved around the debate on the separation of church and state. Where are the boundaries regarding the government’s influence on religious expression? Where are the boundaries regarding the church’s claim upon the government in a country that is still predominately influenced by Judeo-Christian values? The debate will continue.
 
There have been fewer articles written regarding practical and theological issues raised by Judge Moore in his promotion of the Ten Commandments.
 
First, a point about the practical issue in this debate.
 
Moore has insisted that current law is based on the Commandments and that governmental buildings are appropriate places to acknowledge that influence. Just how much do the Ten Commandments affect our current law? Not much.
 
Which American law regulates Commandment 1, “You shall have no other gods before me”? Which American law regulates Commandment 2, “You shall not make for yourself any graven image”? Or Commandment 3, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”?, 4, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy”? or 5, “Honor your father and mother”?
 
We do have laws that forbid murder (Commandment 6). We don’t have laws, however, that lock up adulterers (Commandment 7). Our laws forbid stealing (Commandment 8), but we don’t have laws that punish liars unless they are under oath (Commandment 9). We have no laws against covetousness (Commandment 10), unless said covetousness leads to illegal action.
 
This is not to say that American law is not based on God’s law. Any law that is moral and fair has some basis in God’s law of moral justice. But a closer look at the Ten Commandments suggests they haven’t affected our laws as much as Judge Moore would have us believe.
 
The most overlooked issue in this debate, however, is theological.
 
Judge Moore has mostly used the language of the Old Testament to frame his argument. The fact that he chose to inscribe the Ten Commandments in granite rather than Jesus’ Beatitudes is significant. He chose to focus all his attention on the Law of Moses rather than on the words of Jesus.
 
Of all the sound bites I’ve ever heard from Judge Moore, I’ve never heard him use the name of Jesus, or talk about salvation coming through Jesus. Though he hasn’t said so, you would think, from the emphasis placed on the law, that Judge Moore believes the law can save us from our sin.
 
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul tells us the opposite. Paul had lived a life dominated by the law but found it to be an impossible life to live. In writing to the church at Philippi, he told them that before he became a Christian he had great zeal for “persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:6)
 
Paul isn’t saying he was perfect, but that he sought to live his life as close to the commandments of God as possible. Of those efforts he went on to say, “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Phil 3:8-9)
 
Paul discovered the law couldn’t save him. He found the demands of keeping the law were too great for anyone to follow without failure.
 
In Romans 5:20, Paul says that “God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were.” The purpose of the law never was to bring salvation to people but to show us that we are lost and need help from God.
 
Some of the more popular dramas on television these days show forensic experts at work in solving crimes. Sometimes evidence is brought in to be examined. To the naked eye, foreign objects like hair, fibers or bodily fluids sometimes go unseen. However, when a lumalight is used like a wand, passing over the object, incriminating evidence appears. Even though the evidence was there the entire time, only under the light was the evidence exposed.
 
Incriminating sin shows up under the light of the word of God. This brings new meaning to the Psalmist’s words, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” (Ps 119:105)
 
Judge Moore succeeded in bringing the Ten Commandments back into the minds of Americans. Unfortunately, too many will be left with the impression that believing the Ten Commandments are the basis of our laws is enough to make one a Christian.
 
Just once through this entire debate, I wish Judge Moore had used his 15 minutes of fame to make it clear that the law doesn’t save us. It only points out that we are sinners.
 
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
 Click here to download a sample lesson of Acacia Resources next online curriculum, Honoring the Ten Commandments.