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Obeying the Moral Commandments is a Works Righteousness

I’m currently studying Calvin’s Institutes for my seminary studies. I thought I’d share some notes I’ve written from the current chapter I’m in. It all revolves around obedience to the Ten Commandments, but falls short because we separate the commandments into two segments: one segment on our relationship with God and one a segment of prohibitions against certain moral failures. In reality, the second set flows from the first, and without the first, there can be no true obedience. This is important because many in the Christian community in America seek to bring God back into a society that has forgotten him. We seek to enshrine the moral commandments for our society. But the moral commandments were never meant to be obeyed on their own. They were never intended to be separated from the first commands about loving God. Love for others must spring from love for God; otherwise, there is no true love of others in the way the scripture enjoins.

The law draws us to the mediator of Christ because we know that we cannot fulfill the law. We need the mediator to represent us before God that we might be forgiven. The deeds mentioned in the law must be taken in whole with the command to worship God only because all of the law rests on this premise, to love the Lord and to love others.  

The law is sometimes seen as severe on us, but it is in our nature to love ourselves and act selfishly for ourselves regardless of what the law says. Even if we seek to obey the commands on moral purity, we only do them of our own power and fleshly significance if we first do not take into account the first four commandments in obedience of worship to God alone. The punishments of the law frighten man so that he may come to God in repentance and learn what it means to serve him first so that our obedience to the rest of the law may be seen as a form of worship to him as well. Man always seeks his own benefit before God’s. That fear should drive us to God alone.  

There is fleshly righteousness, and there is spiritual righteousness. That of the flesh is the desire to obey the last six commandments of our own effort without considering the first four. This is not true obedience to the law, for the other commandments spring from the first. To obey them without the first is a fleshly righteousness, which is no true righteousness at all. But when we seek to obey the worship of God alone, then the obedience to the others, because of the first four, is a spiritual righteousness, taking into account our relationship to God and not just our relationship to man.  

This is the type of obedience that the Pharisees gave to God. They were intent on the worship of the letter rather than on the worship of God. Theirs was a works righteousness, not a righteousness focused on the person of God.  

Obeying God rightly begins with worshipping God alone. It is a positive affirmation that also employs a negative. If we worship God alone, then we are enjoined not to worship false gods. Each rule of the Ten Commandments, therefore, implies its opposite. Instead of just not murdering, we are to seek to bring life or the benefits of life to another. Instead of not just committing adultery, we are to live with a heart of faithfulness above all else. All of the commandments imply this opposite approach. The commandments are not just mere prohibitions.  

Jesus also taught in this way. He called hatred murder. He called lust adultery. He exposed the truth that when we try to obey a prohibition on its own, under our own outward power, we do not achieve true righteousness at all. This is true of earthly prohibitions as well. A king or person in ruling authority may lay down a law to be obeyed. But the obedience is outward only. If he says not to murder, then we obey the command not to murder but don’t deal with the cause of murder that springs from our hearts. God’s word deals with what is right on the inside, not just outward obedience. We, therefore, seek not to murder because we want to bring or speak life to someone else. We must deal with our hate before we can say we have obeyed the command not to murder. This is true with all of the commandments.

We may seek to bring morality back to our society, but it is fleeting. Without the first commands to worship and love the Lord, all obedience is feigned and will not stand. We need the commandments, but only because we need God first.

Tom Terry is head of Global Broadcast Strategy for JESUS Film Project and serves as General Manager of The Better FM, an online radio station for Asia. Tom is also the author of several books, including Bible studies and "Like An Eagle," his biography about living in Mongolia for ten years.
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