I suppose a good place to start with a study of the 10 commandments is to examine their relevance for us today. When discussing this topic the most obvious question for Christians is the following:
As a Christian in the 21st century, what value do the 10 commandments have for me?
God gave the 10 commandments to Moses approximately 3,400 years ago while the Jewish people were escaping Egyptian slavery and traveling to their promised land (now called Israel). They consisted of 10 succinct commands that are divided into two categories: the first four have to do with man's duty to God and the last six have to do with man's duty in treating other people.
They are listed in Exodus 20:1-17:
1Then God spoke all these words, saying,
2 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
7 "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
8 "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11"For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
12 "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.
13 "You shall not murder.
14 "You shall not commit adultery.
15 "You shall not steal.
16 "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
We will go over each of these individually in the chapters to come, but for this chapter let's get back to the question of their relevancy to the modern Christian - What value do these commands have for me today?
The answer is in Romans 3:19-20:
19Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
The commandments are God's instrument to reveal sin and its consequences.
For the non-Christian this is important because only when he is aware of his sins and their consequences does he begin to seek forgiveness - not before.
The true danger of the post-modern idea that there is no sin is that this causes one not to look for the solution to sin, which is Christ. For the Christian, the commandments are important because even though his sins are forgiven at baptism, he needs to know about sin and how to deal with it on a daily basis in order to grow in Christ. This growth process is called sanctification. The greatest confusion in the mind of a new Christian is the misunderstanding of the difference between salvation and sanctification.
Salvation is a onetime event where God, because of His grace, forgives us of all of our sins. This takes place when we express our faith in Jesus through repentance and baptism. At this point all of our sins are gone forever and we are saved from going to hell. We are never more saved than the day we are baptized; it is a one time, once for all-time event (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:1).
Sanctification, on the other hand, is the way God, through His Word and Spirit, matures us in Christ. At baptism we are saved or born again. These terms mean the same thing and describe the same event. Sanctification, however, describes the process where a Christian grows up to become like Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Knowing about sinfulness therefore is important for both of these. This is where the commandments come in. You have to be aware of sin and its consequence before you seek salvation. The commandments describe clearly and pointedly the moral failure in our lives and warn us of the consequences.
Once saved, you need to be aware of sin and its effects in order to deal with it in your own life and minister to others who are struggling with it as well. The commandments and all the material in the Bible that refer to them help us diminish and eliminate the influence of sinfulness in our lives.
We are not earning our salvation when we struggle with sin each day. Jesus has already done this with His death on the cross (1 Colossians 1:29-31). When we struggle with sin we are following in the steps of Jesus as faithful disciples who are being sanctified through this process.
Sanctification is important because in Christianity as in natural life, you grow or you die. It is not enough for a little baby to be born, that baby has to develop physically and emotionally or else it will die as a baby. It is the same with Christians, it is not enough that we are born again in the waters of baptism, we must grow up in Christ or else we will shrivel up, become sickly and die.
The 10 Commandments are God's tools to help conceive and deliver us as Christian babes - and then promote normal healthy growth to spiritual adulthood.
The 10 Commandments and You
When the commandments point out sin in our lives (what they are supposed to do) here are some helpful ways to respond positively:
1. Don't be afraid or upset
No one likes to have their faults pointed out, but remember this is God talking to you and He has a right to do this because He has no faults. Try to see this as an opportunity to eliminate something that is stopping your progress in Christ.
2. Be honest with God
If there is sin in your life, admit it to Him. This is always the first step in combating sin in your life. You cannot grow if you do not abandon sin, you cannot abandon sin if you do not acknowledge its existence first. If you are honest with God, He will not only forgive you (1 John 1:7-9), He will give you the strength you need to deal with this sin from now on.
3. Be patient
It takes a long time to win over certain sins in our lives. The commandments only point out sin, they do not solve the problems - Jesus does this and He does it in His own way and time. It does not all happen in one day. Jesus freely gives us salvation and promises to be with us each day as we grow up into Him.