Lent 3 • Exodus 20:1–17 • March 11, 2012
By Robert Kolb
What do we do with the law of God? That is a question critical for human life since God’s law gives us his design for life. He is its creator. His design makes life work right. Because we, however, want to run our own lives, making decisions contrary to his law, we experience his commands as the enemy, interfering with our attempts to redefine what it means to be human. Creatures only create frustration and fear with our futile, fatal efforts to redesign our humanity according to our own foolish plans. It only makes sense to enjoy God’s gift of the true design for human living.
Notes on the Text Most of us read this text only through Luther’s eyes since he used much of it as his way of conveying the accusing or crushing force of God’s plan for human life. In 1520 Luther explained his approach to teaching the basics of the Christian faith, the catechism: diagnosis through the law, healing through the gospel, and a plan for living as a forgiven child of God. He chose the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) as the digest of God’s law, which brings sinners to repentance. Luther also put much of the introduction to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 to use as his “conclusion” to the commandments.  We should not exaggerate the importance of the precise wording of our English translation of the verb that expresses God’s design. The theological impact of each translation is the same when our hearers translate our verbs into their own lives. “You are to” and “you are not to” clearly put a burden on me. “The Christian must,” “ought to,” and “shall” also clearly put the burden on me. So do “the Christian does not kill” or “the Christian will not steal.” These latter expressions may sound friendlier, but they also focus my attention on my own performance just as surely as the others. As God’s design for our actions, the law serves as the standard for evaluating our performance; it is all about what I do. The gospel, however, is about what God does for me. So the crushing or accusing force of the law will reassert itself whenever I think of my own life. [Paraphrasing James Nestingen: the law is like a wolf that you train as a guide dog. Good guidance, good protection, but you never know when it will turn on you.] Especially in a society that is losing its moral moorings, people need the guidance and instruction God’s law gives, for what was once obvious in a “Judeo-Christian” culture is no longer. However, the law that guides or protects today can easily slip back into its crushing role, and Christians must be sensitive to how the law is impacting their hearers.  God wove his design for human life into our being and daily existence, incorporating both freedom and responsibility. The law recorded in Scripture reveals much of God’s will for our lives, but believers in Christ are continually confronted by situations in which law must be applied responsibly without specific clues. Thus, the believer approaches daily decision-making with biblical guidance, prayer, and input from the community of fellow-believers, critically appropriated.  In Exodus 20 God did not call Israel to obedience on the basis of his creative act and design for human life. Here he called his people to the good life on the basis of his saving, liberating action in their redemption from Egyptian imprisonment through his mighty arm. We are able to live the life that fulfills God’s design for our humanity only through the liberating resurrection of Christ, which, in conjunction with his dying for our sins (Rom 4:25) and burying those sins in his tomb (Rom 6:4), has placed us on the path of walking in Christ’s footsteps as new creatures, whom the Holy Spirit has created anew through his word of absolution.
- In Exodus 20, God was making his covenant with the people whom he had freed from slavery in Egypt. He had claimed them, giving them this gift apart from anything they had done to earn this freedom. With God’s gift came his expectations. These expectations were also a good gift, a plan for enjoying their identity as his creatures and his children.
- We who have received the gift of identity as God’s children through Christ’s sin-abolishing death and his righteousness-bestowing resurrection (Rom 4:25) also have been given new birth without any conditions fulfilled on our part. As parents who give life to a child have expectations for the child’s performance, so God has expectations. Our fulfilling them does not determine whether we are his children but does reflect our faith in his word that gives us our new identity.
- God’s law comes with the label “handle with care.” Our sinfulness has turned this good gift of God’s design for good human living into a killer that strangles the sinner. Seeking the guidance of the law for fulfilling our desire to be God’s faithful children can end up in shame or guilt when we focus on our sinfulness rather than recognize that Christ has claimed our sins for his tomb and placed us in his own kingdom, freed from defending ourselves with our sinful exploitation of others and our rebellious rejection of his love.