The Ten Commandments in the Age of Grace
by J. Vernon McGee

All too often we find that the Ten Commandments have been robbed of their majesty, application, design and dignity. In a pointed effort to avoid any such error we shall look at the matter of why the commandments were given.

On Blackwell's Island (now known as Welfare Island) in New York City where prisoners were once confined, there was a graveyard for the bodies of criminals, and had you chanced to walk through that cemetery you would have come upon a rather unusual epitaph on a tombstone. The lines of the epitaph read as follows:

Here lie the fragments of John Smith
Who contradicted his Maker,
Played football with the Ten Commandments,

And departed this life at the age of thirty-five.
His mother and wife weep for him.
Nobody else does.
May he rest in peace.

Now no one can "play football" with the Ten Commandments and escape the judgment of God. Often the charge is made against those who preach the grace of God that they do not have a proper appreciation of the law, and in this we refer to the Ten Commandments especially. Also, it is charged that they despise and reject the law and go so far as to teach that since man cannot be saved by it he can violate and break it with impunity.

On the contrary, every preacher of the grace of God, who has a true perspective of the nature of salvation by faith, recognizes the lofty character and majesty of the law. Such a man maintains a proper respect and reverence for it and with the Psalmist can sing from a full heart: "Oh, how I love thy law; it is my meditation all the day."

In getting down to the center of the meaning, it might be well to approach the question of "Why the Ten Commandments were given" by asking, "What is the law?" or, to be more specific, "What are the Ten Commandments?"

One of the oldest definitions given is that the law is a transcript of the mind of God. May we mark that to be a very defective definition? Perhaps a clearer statement of fact would be that the law is the expression of the mind of God relative to what man ought to be, but nothing else. It is His will for man and expresses, in part, both the nature and character of God. In no sense does the law yield mercy, grace, love or help. Nevertheless, it is the norm for human conduct. God states this fact very specifically in Micah 6:8: "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?" That is law undiluted; it is law as God must give it and that Law is thrust down through human affairs as a two-edged sword with all the deft keenness of lightning as it cuts its path across a stormy sky.

In the last analysis, the law lifts high those things that are right and boldly sets forth the things that are wrong that all men might see and read.

We recall taking a course in sociology under a professor who insisted that there is no norm for right and wrong, no way of determining each except by custom. However, we can face the issue triumphantly for God has given His law to let man know what is wrong. We know that stealing is wrong because God states that it is wrong. Lying is wrong for God so declares it to be, and adultery is wrong since God stamps it as such, and no man can change that.


There is another aspect of the law that needs to be set before us and that is that law never contains within itself the power of enforcement. The reason for the failure of the Eighteenth Amendment lies in this fact. A great many good people were confident that after the Eighteenth Amendment was passed prohibition was established as a working law. But it had to be enforced. Therefore, we find that the law must have power.

Let us note that God as the lawgiver has that power. We find that He even wraps up the penalties that accompany the breaking of laws as they operate in nature. We designate these laws as laws of science or laws of nature, and we see them in operation today. They are immutable. They are unchangeable.

An Example in Nature

A short while ago our hearts were saddened at a great tragedy in San Fernando Valley when several precious little folk were killed by the falling of planes into a schoolyard. This came about because there is a law of nature that was operating then as now. We call it the law of gravity. Some are apt to wonder: "Couldn't God who is a God of love have modified the law of gravity to such a degree that when the planes collided they would have wafted downward with the wind as a feather thus giving the children time in which to escape?" Yes, God could have done that but to suspend this law would have brought about an even greater tragedy in which all the residents of Los Angeles County would have floated out into space. But we know that a law of nature never changes. It is immutable. One of the characteristics of any law is that it knows no persons. It plays no favorites. Were it to do this it would not be law. And a judge who will do other than the law demands fails the high moral responsibility of his chosen field of service.

By the side of every judge in the courts of the Roman Empire there stood a statue of Themis, goddess of justice.

Rome boasted that she had dealt fairly with every people whom she had conquered, and had established justice in the world of that day.

Familiar to many of us is the statue of the goddess Themis. Justice, personified as a woman, was thus presented to the Roman mind, because it was to have the quality of tenderness in all decisions. She is represented as being blindfolded since justice should be impartial, treating all alike: rich and poor, high and low; all should stand before the court of justice on an equal basis. She holds in her left hand the balances, which act expresses the thought that justice will weigh the evidence equally on both sides. In the right hand is a sword held downward, in evidence of the fact that she will execute the sentence on the guilty if one is found in guilt.

An Example in the Moral Realm

In looking into the moral realm we discover there penalties which are automatic in the breaking of the law. God has made it that way. The writer to the Hebrews records: "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy." It had to be that way or it would not have been law. And then again in Leviticus God says: "The man that doeth these things shall live by them." That makes clear that one cannot break these laws without penalty, and the penalty will be enforced. Therefore He had to say in Deuteronomy: "Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them." In following along with the general thought of this Scripture, we read in Numbers 15:32-36 that a certain man went out to gather sticks on the Sabbath day and in doing this he broke God's law. That man was stoned to death because that was the law and it carried its penalty in the breaking of it. Law is majestic; it plays no favorites.

Fusion Begets Confusion

It would be well to take time to look at another viewpoint concerning the law which is prevalent today and needs to be corrected. It is the attempted fusing of law and grace into one system. That is confusion of a very serious nature, and it is rife throughout our country.

A booklet was placed in my hands recently. It is put out by some new church here in Los Angeles and in dealing with matters essential to salvation it mentions three things that one is to do, the chief of which is to enter into "a life according to the Ten Commandments." A writer who would make such a statement as that is either ignorant of the law or is an egomaniac. We know that no man can ever stand before God and say, "I keep the law." God says the law is perfect and that is what man is saying if he stands before God by law. Man knows only too well that he is not perfect.

And at this point we will consider the depth of confusion of those who profess to believe in and accept Christ but attempt to keep the law as a way of salvation. May we quote from this same booklet once again: "It's still taught that the keeping of the Ten Commandments is not essential to salvation, that we are saved by faith alone. This is the most destructive and devastating heresy that has ever invaded the church."

When we turn to review the writings of Paul to both the Romans and Galatians, we can well understand why we have confusion in this land. When an attempt is made to bring law and grace together, fusing them into a teaching or practice, we can easily see why the law is robbed of its majesty and purpose and grace is shorn of its goodness, glory, wonder, and desirability. When the two—law and grace—have been brought together the claims of the law are unanswered and the sinner's needs are not met.

By now it becomes clear that the law sets forth what man ought to be, and grace reveals what God is. But we want to go further and make clear something of the majesty of the law, its lofty position. No man dares to trifle with its precepts or attempts to reduce it to his level by saying, "I have measured up to this."

Would a man dare to think that he is saved by keeping the law?

Why Was the Law Given?

Why did God strike the Ten Commandments upon the tables of stone and give them to the children of Israel? We will discover in going into this matter that three reasons will immediately arise in reply.

1. The law was given to reveal who God is and to throw light upon the vast gap and yawning chasm between God and man. Paul says in Galatians 4:21: "Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?" In making their history to answer this question, we must seek a vantage point and view the scene as God begins to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. He delivered them and their first-born because of the blood sprinkled on the lintel and the side posts.

With the great Exodus under way we follow them to the Red Sea where a miracle of God made possible a path of safety through the sea and the children of Israel were brought to Sinai. Sinai was not a beautiful sight, but it was there that God sent Moses to say to the Israelites: "Ye see how I have brought you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Would you like to continue on eagles' wings or would you like to have my law?" (free translation).

Then these people answered in bold effrontery saying to God: "All that the Lord commands, we will do it." Thus they asked for the Law; they received it from God through Moses and they did not know what it was, but pledged to do it.

Their story is as sordid as any story ever written and that nation is today scattered throughout the world. Fundamentally, the present trouble in the Near East is because they broke God's Law. Those who insist upon being under the law today that they might be saved have just as much information as to the meaning as did the Israelites when they said, "All that the Lord commands, we will do it."

The first thing that God said when they asked for the Law was to issue instructions saying: "And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:" Three thousand were slain that day and then we are told that when God came down upon the mountain to give the law, there was thunder and lightning, a thick cloud, and the voice of the trumpet. It was exceeding loud so that the people in the camp trembled. In fear they stood afar off. (Exodus 19:16-21).

Moses had no thought of giving an impression that the giving of the law was a glorious and happy occasion for he well knew that God, in this act, was opening up a dividing line from eternity to eternity and man must stand either on the right side or on the wrong side. It was a frightful time.

The Israelites were so afraid that they drew away from the mount and sent word back through Moses asking that the Lord not come to them but that He might let Moses speak to them as they were sore afraid. What a picture is given here!

If the Israelites trembled at the revealed power of God enveloping the law as it was given, certainly men of our day should fear to come under God's law for it condemns us.

In Psalm 19 we are given the statement that "the law of the LORD is perfect…." It is perfect and it demands perfection.

A lawyer went to our Lord Jesus Christ with the question, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" Before giving our Lord's acknowledgment of this question, we would want to call attention to the fact the Ten Commandments are divided into two parts: the first four deal with the matter of man's relationship with God, and the last six with man's relationship to man. With this in mind let us look at His reply: "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. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40). Does any man want to come before God on that kind of basis and tell Him that he does love Him every moment of the day; that he loves Him with all his mind, heart, and soul and has never loved anything else more than Him, nor has he put anything or anyone before God in his affections? Is any man prepared to say that he loves his neighbor as himself? Unless a man can honestly make such a confession of love and obedience unto God then he had better flee from the Ten Commandments as a way of salvation. They do not save you; they condemn you.

"Weighed in the balances, and … found wanting" was the experience of a king. And when the Ten Commandments are put on one side of the balances and either you or I step in on the other side we come short; we are found wanting. So, then, in the first step we find that the law reveals who God is and how far man and God are apart.

2. The law reveals to man who he is and his inability to bridge the great gulf between him and God in his own strength. Just here there is an essential Scripture for our reading, which is Romans 3:19-20: "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin."

In this second step we see that the law was given to reveal man to himself but that it could not save him. The Apostle James follows this point in interesting fashion: "For is any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was" (James 1:23-24). Therefore, the law is as a mirror revealing the sin in man, but in no way does it remove that sin. Paul said, "For what the law could not do …." The law cannot save. While it does reveal our sin, it does not make us sinners.

Paul writes in Galatians 3:9: "So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham." Then the apostle asks in Galatians 4:9: "But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage." Why return to the bondage of the law? The law reveals and it condemns; the law cannot save. James said that if a man would keep all the law and yet broke one part of it, he is guilty of all."

3. The law was given to bring men to Christ. In this third reason we discover the magnificent and supreme action of the law. In Galatians 3:24 it is stated: "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster …" In the Greek we find that the word for "schoolmaster" is paidagogos, and it means one who is a pedagogue or a man who took a little child and led him to school. Now let us take verses 24 and 25 [Galatians 3:24-25] and read them as a whole, for the full story lies here: "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."

If a man will but take the law for the purpose and in the way God gave it, and will honestly look at the law, he will see how high God is and the great chasm lying between him and God. He will see himself as he is and his utter inability to bridge that chasm. Then the law will take him by the hand and lead him to Christ, who, because He kept the law and died on the cross, is the one who paid the penalty for our sin and made it possible for a holy God not to lower His standard.

Oh, if man would but let the law fulfill its glorious purpose in his life in this age of grace!