Text: Commandments VIII-X
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, St. Paul wrote to the Romans,
If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
St. Paul says that though the Law of God is good and wise – It is His holy, righteous, and perfect will – since the Fall into sin it has served another purpose: the shows us our sin. It shows us God’s holy and good will, the things that God desires us to do, but in doing so it also reveals just how godly we really are.
So far we’ve looked at the first seven Commandments. Last week we looked at the Fifth through Seventh, and some of us may have thought that, okay, now here were some things we can do. Don’t murder, don’t cheat on your spouse, and don’t steal. Those seem pretty reasonable. Of course, we know from the Sermon on the Mount that the Commandments don’t just regulate outward physical actions, that was the error of the Jews, but the very inward thoughts and intentions of our hearts. Even if we didn’t have Jesus to teach us that, we would still learn it from a right understanding of the last three Commandments. These govern not just physical actions, but our thoughts as well. And, by doing so, the final three Commandments turn us back to the First. We are to fear, love, and trust in God above all things so that we then love our neighbors as ourselves.
At first glance, Commandments 8-10 seem to deal only with outward things. The Eighth Commandment is “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” The Ninth and Tenth Commandment are both “You shall not covet.” The Ninth speaks about coveting our neighbor’s things, the Tenth about people associated with our neighbor, such as his wife or workers. We learn from the Eighth Commandment that we should, first, not bear false witness in the court of law. Neither should we betray our neighbor’s secrets or slander him. We should also not do anything to purposely hurt his reputation, but instead defend him and speak well of him, explaining everything in the kindest way. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments both warn us not to use dishonest means to get our neighbor’s things, which is also the Seventh Commandment – and the Eighth.
An example of that Commandment from Old Testament Israel would be that, because of their hardness of heart, a husband might give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away. This was all legal. But, suppose you were a married man who fancied another’s wife. Now, you wouldn’t stoop to breaking the Sixth Commandment. Instead, you would divorce your wife. Then, you would find a way to make the husband of the wife you fancied dislike his wife. He would divorce her and you would scoop her up. It’d all be legal. Legal, but wrong. This situation might not play out the same today, but you can see how it illustrates the Commandment “Do not covet,” for we are to fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get things which aren’t ours in ways that only appear right.
But, now you see. These Commandments, and all of them, deal not just with external, outward actions, but the lying and scheming hearts that beat within our chests. They reveal that, at the core, our hearts are just plain bad. It says in the Psalms, “The Lord looks down from heaven…to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt.” Jeremiah laments over the condition of the human heart saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” Who among us can go a day without lying or without coveting? The Lord teaches us that He provides for all our needs, and yet we doubt and look to all the things other people have. He continually comes to us in His Word and Sacraments to give us the forgiveness of our sins and to reassure us of His grace. He promised that against these things the gates of hell shall not prevail, and yet, we worry about whether we’ll even be here in 5 years.
Dear Christian friends, the Commandments show us not just our failures to live according to God’s will by our actions, but they shine a spotlight on the natural condition of our heart: bad, bad, evil, bad. This is the doctrine of original sin. By nature, our hearts are totally corrupt, devoid of the good things of God and actually turned against Him. St. Augustine wrote that original sin is the lack of original righteousness. That is, Adam and Eve were created with the ability to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, an ability we now lack. It’s the Commandments’ job to show us that. It says in the Smalcald Articles, one of the documents in our Lutheran Book of Concord, that our human nature is so deeply corrupted by original sin that no one can understand it by reason or logic; it must be believed from Scripture. So then, by revealing the natural contents of our hearts, Commandments 8-10 form a wreath bringing us back the First Commandment, or perhaps at this moment, a noose around our necks.
St. Paul continued in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin…I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” With Paul, we agree that God’s Law is good and right, and we ought to do the things it says. Hymn 579 says in stanza 3, “To those who help in Christ have found and would in works of love abound it shows what deeds are His delight and should be done as good and right.” As those redeemed in Christ, we are forgiven our sins, our failure to obey God’s Law. In Holy Baptism the guilt of original sin, and all sin, is washed away. It is the washing of renewal and rebirth where we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He leads us to scorn the flesh, desiring and doing God’s holy will. And yet, we aren’t out of danger yet.
For, though we are baptized, our old corrupt nature is not totally obliterated. God’s work in us will not be complete until the resurrection, where what is perishable puts on the imperishable. We are forgiven now and will enter eternal life, but in the meantime we are still sinners. You’ve heard the phrase simul justus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. What does that mean? Do we focus on the saint part and write off the sinner part saying that sinners are just going to sin as a matter of fact? No! The Law needs to be continually be preached, even to Christians, because honestly, sometimes we can get lazy.
The Law has three jobs, one we already know. First, it acts as a curb, saying “Don’t bear false testimony; Don’t covet.” Second, it shows us how godly we are by nature: that even if we don’t sin in action, our thoughts and words are still in play. (That’s called acting as a mirror.) And, third, it stands as God’s will for our lives as, a guide for redeemed Christians. Redeemed, yes, but also still sinners. That is why we’ve been looking at the Commandments this Lent: to increase our understanding of God’s Word and the depth of His mercy. The moment we cast off the preaching of God’s Law is also the moment we free ourselves of the Gospel.
St. Paul confessed, “What a wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” This confession we share. We’ve looked at all Ten Commandments; how have you scored? When measured against God’s holy law, we don’t look so good. In fact, we are revealed to be totally corrupt, vessels fit for destruction. But, “Thanks be to God through Jesus our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus Christ is the true God of all heaven and earth and yet, in our time, He took on Himself our human flesh. The author of the Law became subject to its demands, as we are. Only, He kept them all perfectly. He actively obeyed God’s will in action and thought. Then, as payment for our transgressions, He died the brutal death we deserve for every evil thought. Through the preaching of His Word, in the washing of Holy Baptism, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, He daily and richly forgives our sins as a free gift. Through the Law we learn God’s will and our corruption. In the Gospel we learn the magnitude of His mercy. Thanks be to God.