The Ten Commandments: An Introduction

“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” (1 Timothy 1:8 NIV)

The law is good if used properly. How do we use it properly? A great example of using it properly is Jesus’ exposition of the law—we call it the Sermon on the Mount—where he goes through several of the Ten Commandments and says not only is the breaking of the command sin but also the attitudes that lead to the breaking of it. So murder is wrong but so is anger toward another. Adultery is sin but so is desiring adultery (lust).

So the consistent call of Scripture to anyone who is trying to use the law to earn their salvation is to realize that you cannot do it. The law doesn’t save us because our sinful hearts cannot fulfill its righteous requirements.

Further challenging this is that there are aspects of the Old Testament law, the ceremonial laws and the civic laws, which Christ has fulfilled and annulled. We don’t sacrifice bulls and goats. We don’t organize governmentally like we are the civic nation Israel of old. Hebrews makes this point.

But the moral commands of the Old Testament are different because they flow from the very unchanging character of God. He always speaks truth, so lying is never his will. He is always most glorious, so profaning his name will forever be sin. Here is where the Ten Commandments are dear and wonderful to us. They guide us into the kind of moral and ethical life that glorifies God. On this side of grace, we don’t do it to be saved. We strive to obey because we are saved.

We use the law rightly when we see the law fulfilling three roles: a mirror, a muzzle, and a map. (This comes from Pastor Randall Grossman, as quoted by Philip Graham Ryken in Written in Stone, p. 27).

Map – Guides our Life and Conduct

A map shows us where we should go. Before GPS was on our phones, you may have had an occasion when you were lost and you had no idea which direction to head. That is a picture of where we would be without God’s moral map. What’s right? What’s wrong? Or are those even categories? This is the relativistic world we live in today. We are, as Chesterton said, a people with our feet firmly planted in mid air. Our art and entertainment reveals the only absolute commandment of our generation, “whatever.”

God’s law does not begin with us, it begins with God. How gracious of God to provide us with a moral map. How are Christians who want to please God supposed to live? God’s law provides the answer, like a map.

Muzzle – Keeps us From Doing Wrong

A muzzle keeps a dog from barking and biting and otherwise doing things he’d be inclined to do if there was no muzzle. A lawless society is one where everyone bites and barks and does whatever they want. This is anarchy. Think of a mob scene or the downtown area of a city where the officers of the law are absent. What do people do? They loot and pillage until the cops show up. Or here’s an easy illustration, what do you instinctively do on the highway when you see a cop? Do you think, I’ll go as fast as I want to go? No. The law acts as a restraint—a muzzle. Sinners in society and community with one another need muzzles to keep us from the depths of our own depravity.

Mirror – Shows us our Sin and Need for a Savior

Did that which is good [the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:13 ESV)

In other words, the moral law of God shows us how massively short we fall to the righteous standard of God. It shows how corrupt our hearts truly are. Like a mirror, in the law we see ourselves as we truly are in the eyes of God. It isn’t pretty. Donald Barnhouse makes the point that mirrors call us to action; they call us to do something about it. Mirrors help us see dirt on our faces but they are totally useless to actually clean our faces. The mirror drives us to the sink and the soap and the water.

When a sinner peers into the perfect law of God, and sees himself for who he is before God’s righteous judgment, the conscience cries out and he searches for spiritual relief; he searches for forgiveness; he searches for a Savior.

How beautiful it is when a sinner, crushed under the weight of their sin, hears and believes the words of Jesus, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) When the crushed conscience is relieved of its burden, not by doing or trying but by receiving grace from God, this is how the law does its finest work—it leads us to Christ.

There we find the only One who ever fulfilled the law’s demands. He never loved anyone more than God the Father. He never worshiped a man-made idol. He always honored God’s name. He fulfilled the Sabbath as Lord of the Sabbath. He always honored his father and mother. He was never unrighteously angry or violent toward another. He was sexually holy in every respect. He was always truthful. He was always content and trusting in his heavenly father. Jesus fulfilled the law and then he died for all those who haven’t fulfilled it.

God’s law will be your friend if you allow it to be a map, a muzzle, and a mirror. As we work through each command, I hope each one drives us to greater admiration and love for the God who has loved us so that we might respond by loving and worshiping him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Additional Scripture quotations taken from Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

© 2014 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address ( on the copied resource.

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