The Ten Commandments appear on the surface to be largely negative; but a law that was confined to general exhortations to goodness would have no teeth. The specific prohibitions channel us towards the positive virtues required – and thus we develop a distinctive lifestyle.
Law has some serious limitations. There is no point in having rules (and even in admiring them) if you don’t follow them. Law can point us in the right direction, but it cannot supply either the desire or the power to make the journey. For the desire, we need love – the love that is our response to what Jesus has already done for us (I John 5:3). Law does not contradict or exclude love, and love does not disregard law (Romans 13:8-10). Law puts love into practice – and love is more than willing to obey. But the power can’t come from ourselves; it can only come from the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to those who place their trust in Him (Ezekiel 36:27).
The other problem with law is that it can only deal with actions. You cannot legislate for attitude – and yet it is attitude that is all-important. You can obey all the rules, and yet still have a corrupt heart inside (Matthew 23:25-28). On the other hand, a right attitude inside will automatically show itself in right behaviour, without having to think too much about the rules. Good trees bear good fruit (Luke 6:43-45); they don’t need to be told to.
In fact, the whole concept of achieving holiness through keeping rules is seriously flawed. Rules are merciless and inflexible; they cannot possibly cover every situation. In some circumstances, they may even be contradictory. (For example: is it permissible to tell a lie in order to save someone’s life?)
The Law of Moses never made the Israelites a holy people – even though it was given by God! (Jeremiah 31:31,32) Rather, it demonstrated that it was impossible to attain holiness through law-keeping. Even the Pharisees – the experts in living by law – did not thereby become righteous in God’s eyes (Matthew 5:20). Instead, they became arrogant, hypocritical, and over-obsessed with trivialities (Matthew 23:16-24).
Some rules are necessary, but rules alone are not enough; they have to be applied in the right way. And there are times when the ‘right way’ may even be to break one of the rules (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Giving generously to the poor is a good general principle – but Mary was not ‘wasting’ a whole bottle of expensive perfume when she poured it over Jesus’ feet (John 12:1-8). Under all normal circumstances, we should respect and support our parents to the hilt (Mark 7:9-13) – but not when they stand between us and Jesus (Matthew 10:37).
A Christian lifestyle is not attained by observing rules, but by imitating Christ. In no way is it some kind of moral ‘freestyle’ without guidance or direction. This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (Galatians 5:18) He works in us to apply His inward law and thus produce the fruit of righteousness: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23). We “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25) by putting these qualities into practice – and the Ten Commandments show us how to go about it.