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Ten words that lead to life

An interview with Jen Wilkin about "Ten Words to Live By"

Western culture would say abundant life is a one free from the rules and commands that weigh us down and hold us back. Unlike King David, our culture sees boundary lines, whether religious or not, as oppressive. Naturally, the Ten Commandments have never been more suspect than they are now, even among the people of God.

But Jen Wilkin, in her new book, Ten Words to Live By: Delighting in and Doing What God Commands, has called the church to “an exercise in remembrance” that the law of God is life-giving and beautiful. In the face of the misunderstandings of our culture, Wilkin argues that these Ten Words of God, when understood right, will “steady and strengthen us on the narrow path that leads us home.” She recently answered some of our questions about this latest word. 

In your new book, Ten Words to Live By, you write about the Ten Commandments recorded in the book of Exodus, with which many Christians are familiar. What prompted you to write a book on this topic?

I find that we’re actually only familiar with them in passing. Few of us are able to recall all 10 off the top of our heads, and even fewer could recall them in order. If we do remember them, we tend to view them as straightforward and simplistic. I know I certainly did for a very long time. I wrote the book to help deepen our understanding of what they ask of us, what they offer us, and how they relate to the grace we receive through Christ.

While many, especially non-Christians, may view the Ten Commandments as a set of rigid and restrictive rules, you argue that the law of God is “life-giving” and “beautiful.” Can you explain why these “Ten Words” are life-giving and not life-depriving? 

James speaks of “the law that gives freedom.” The psalmist speaks of the law as his delight. Ezekiel 20:11 says, “I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live.” Since Eden, humans have responded to boundaries as restrictive, as a violation of our will. But laws exist for a reason: they help us to live in community. God’s laws show us how to live in right relationship with him and one another by establishing good boundaries for our flourishing.

Picking up on that, how do God’s laws help us live in community, and why is that important for the church to remember?

The church is the family of God. All healthy families have household rules to help them live at peace with one another and ensure all are committed to the flourishing of the home: speak kindly to each other, apologize quickly and often, don’t hit or bite your siblings, pick up your belongings, etc. God’s laws are the household rules that help us care for each other and honor him as we should. The “one anothers” of the New Testament are grace-driven expressions of these laws.

Christians may assume that since the Ten Commandments were given to the people of God in the Old Testament, we can disregard them today. How would you counsel Christians today to view the Ten Commandments?

God’s law is a reflection of his unchanging character. While our relationship to the law changes once we are in Christ, our duty to it remains. Whereas before we were condemned by it, now we are sanctified by it. Whereas before we offered only a grudging obedience out of fear or a hope to earn God’s favor, now we offer a joyful obedience out of gratitude for already having his favor. The law was obeyed perfectly by Christ, and those who wish to be conformed to his image will eagerly seek to obey it.

What are some ways we continue to violate these ancient commands still today? 

Perhaps the most pervasive example can be seen in social media usage. The Third Word commands us not to defame the name of the Lord. The Ninth Word commands us not to defame the name of our neighbor. It is easier to defame an “invisible” person than one standing right next to us. We say hurtful things about others in their absence that we would never say to their faces. Social media makes everyone invisible. We unleash our vitriol on one another with no sense that an actual person is the recipient of our attack. But every time we defame someone made in the image of God, we defame their Maker. All sin is first and foremost against God. It may be possible to break the Third Word without breaking the Ninth, but it is impossible to break the Ninth without also breaking the Third.

For lawbreakers like us, what does it mean that Jesus Christ fulfilled the law? What kind of hope does that offer for Christians?

He obeyed it perfectly on our behalf to redeem us. We are saved by his good works! But he also obeyed it perfectly as our example. We are sanctified by following in his footsteps!

For those of us who continue to “stumble and falter along the way,” in light of the person and work of Jesus, what sort of encouragement and strength can we draw from these Ten Words now carved on our hearts?

The Ten Words are for our sanctification, but while our sanctification is certain, it is not sudden. We will spend our lives pressing on toward the mark, and often missing it. For the unbeliever, there is only increased wrath for every failure. For the children of God, there is grace without measure. I can’t think of better “good news” than that — to be given a lamp for our feet along life’s dark path, and to be given a healing balm for when we stumble and fall. We will indeed stumble, but we will stand again and resume the race. God is faithful to complete what he begins!

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