Skip to comments."The Ten Commandments: Curb, Mirror, and Guide" (Sermon for Ash Wednesday)
Posted on 02/22/2023 11:29:14 AM PST by Charles Henrickson
“The Ten Commandments: Curb, Mirror, and Guide”
Today we begin a series called “A Catechetical Lent.” In our six Wednesday services we will be looking at the six chief parts of the Small Catechism: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar. These are the basics of Christian faith and life. Whether you’re learning the catechism to become a communicant member--and we have catechumens right now at both congregations, St. Matthew and Grace--or whether you are a lifelong Lutheran, it’s always good to come back to the basics. The words never change, but you do. So it’s always good to apply the unchangeable truth of God’s word to the changing circumstances of your life.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It’s appropriate then that we begin with the first part of the catechism, the Ten Commandments. Why so? Because Ash Wednesday is a very solemn and somber day, when we remember our mortality and repent of our sins. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we heard as the ashes were placed on our forehead. The wages of sin is death, and we are all guilty under God’s law.
That’s one of the main purposes of the law, to tell us that we are sinners. And we need to know that. But there are also a couple of other purposes for which God has given us his law. Together we call them the three uses or functions of the law, and each use serves a valuable purpose. And so our theme today: “The Ten Commandments: Curb, Mirror, and Guide.” We’ll explain each one of these terms and see how they apply to us.
First, we need to establish what we mean by the Ten Commandments as God’s law. This is to say that the Ten Commandments sum up how God our Creator would have all people live. This is the best way, the right way, for how human beings should conduct themselves. Jesus summed up the Ten Commandments in two directions. He said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s it: Love God with everything that’s in you. Love your neighbor as yourself. How would you like to be treated? That’s how you should treat your neighbor, with the same respect and kindness.
That brings us then to the first use of the law, the Ten Commandments as curb. The Ten Commandments set a boundary around behavior. Because God has written his law into human hearts, we all have a sense of what is right and wrong. And this is why societies can have civil laws against things like murder and stealing. We all know those things are wrong. And so the law keeps behavior within bounds, because there are punishments and penalties if we transgress the civil laws. Those laws act as a deterrent. We call this then the curb function of the law. Just like a curb on a street sets a boundary that a car is not supposed to cross, lest it runs into a pedestrian or a building, so God’s law keeps behavior within some semblance of order, lest life goes completely bonkers.
But what happens when the curb crumbles? What happens when a society doesn’t enforce the curb against bad behavior? Then we get what happened here in St. Louis over the weekend. Maybe you heard about it in the news. The story is tragic and heartbreaking. There was a girls’ volleyball tournament in downtown St. Louis, and teams had come here from all over. Saturday night a 17-year-old girl named Janae from Tennessee was walking back to her hotel with her parents, when suddenly a car came barreling down the street at high speed and crashed into another car, sending it flying. That car landed on Janae, pinning her under it. She was taken to the hospital and had to have both of her legs amputated. As I say, this is so tragic and heartbreaking.
But it is also infuriating. Because what about the driver of that car? He is 21 years old and does not have a driver’s license. What’s more, he had been arrested for armed robbery back in 2020, and that case was supposed to come to trial in January. But the St. Louis Circuit Attorney said they weren’t ready. Also, this man was out on bond and was supposed to wear a monitoring device. But he violated that order some 51 times. Why was his bond not revoked? Good question. Why did the Circuit Attorney or the judge not do their job and keep this guy off the street? Or the larger question: Why do the citizens of St. Louis elect prosecutors who don’t prosecute and judges who don’t enforce justice? You see, this is what happens in a society when the curb function of the law is allowed to crumble.
So that’s the first use of the law, the curb function, which, when heeded, helps to keep order in the world. Now we come to the second use of the law, the mirror function. And this is really the most important use of God’s law, because it shows us who we are as sinners. Like when you look in a mirror and see what you really look like, warts and all, the whole unpleasant truth--in the same way, the Ten Commandments show us that we have not kept them as we should, that we are in fact sinners. The mirror of God’s law tells us that we lack the righteousness we need to enter the kingdom of heaven and have eternal life.
How about you? Oh, we can all cluck our tongues and say, “Well, I’m not a bad, terrible person like that young man who drove the car and cost that girl her legs. And I’m not an irresponsible nitwit like the St. Louis Circuit Attorney or the judges who don’t enforce the law. And I try not to vote for woke idiots like that.” And that all may be true. And we can all feel better about ourselves by comparison. But that’s a pretty low bar to clear. God’s standards are much higher than that. God’s law demands perfection, or else. Either you keep all of the Ten Commandments as they are meant to be kept, not only in outward deed, meaning, you haven’t actually killed anyone or committed physical adultery--not only that, but also: Have you kept all of the commandments in thought, word, or deed? By the things you have done and the things you have not done? Have you positively kept all of the commandments and have you strictly avoided all the things you should not do?
If you can honestly look into the mirror of God’s law and see that kind of a righteous person--well, the truth is, you can’t. None of us can. No, the mirror function tells me that I am a sinner. As Paul writes in Romans: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” That’s the mirror function, and we need to know that. Because once we have given up on our own self-righteousness, now we are ready to hear about a righteousness that will work, one that will pass muster with God. A righteousness that comes from outside of us and is given us as a gift. A righteousness that will save us poor sinners from death and God’s judgment, and will bring us joyfully into the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.
This is the righteousness that comes to us in Christ. God sent his Son into the world to fulfill the law on our behalf. Jesus got it right, everything we fail at. His righteousness passes the test. And while he was without sin, yet he stepped into our shoes and suffered the punishment you and I deserve under God’s law. Death, under God’s judgment and condemnation--that’s what Jesus endured for you on the cross. By his atoning sacrifice, and through faith in him, you and I are pronounced righteous, justified, not guilty in God’s courtroom. Because our death sentence has already been served, by Jesus, in our place, God’s justice is maintained when he declares us not guilty. Christ’s righteousness has been credited to our account. It’s a gift, freely given, and received by faith.
So the law will not save you. Only the gospel of Christ will do that. But the law will alert you to your need for a better kind of righteousness than you can come up with. And that’s what the mirror function does, and that’s why it’s so important.
Now we come to the third use of the law, the guide function. Now that you have been saved by Christ, now that you are baptized and have received the Holy Spirit, now, by that same Spirit, you want to do God’s will. You are a new person and desire to do works that are pleasing in God’s sight. How can you know which are works that God wants you to do? The Ten Commandments serve as a guide. Do I have to run off and join a monastery somewhere in order to please God? Do I have to do some extraordinary super-spiritual deed? No. The Ten Commandments tell you that you can be pleasing God simply within the reach of your ordinary duties. Be a good family member, be a good citizen, be an honest employer or employee, be a good church member. That sort of thing. Fulfill your various vocations in life, in a life of love and service, and you are doing God-pleasing works. Prompted and produced by the Holy Spirit working in you, through the means of grace, you will live a life of love and good works. And the Ten Commandments will act as a guide for knowing what those works look like. That is the third use of the law.
Dear friends, today you received the sign of the ashes on your forehead. Those ashes remind you that you are a sinner who has broken God’s commandments and that you will die. That is what the law will tell you. The law always accuses. But remember this also about those ashes. They were applied to you in the shape of a cross, reminding you that Christ your Savior took all your sins in your place and died for them. Thus you are forgiven and freed from eternal death. That cross is a preaching of the gospel! The law will not save you, but the gospel will! And it does! So, happy Ash Wednesday! Happy Lent!
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.