Below is an excerpt from the book by J.I. Packer (courtesy of Crossway Publishers).
Life means relationships—with God, men, and things. Get your relationships right, and life is joy, but it is a burden otherwise. It is natural to love life, and against nature to want it to stop; yet today, as when Christianity was born, many experience life as such a meaningless misery that their thoughts turn seriously to suicide. What has gone wrong? Probably relationships. Though depression may have physical roots and yield to physical treatment, disordered relationships are usually at least part of the trouble, and for a full cure these have to be put straight.
What does that involve? Social workers know how a lack of meaningful human relations wastes the spirit and try to bring help at this point. That alone, however, is less than half the remedy. True joy comes only through meaningful relations with God, in tasting his love and walking Christ’s way. This is the real dolce vita, the life that is genuinely sweet and good.
Now the blueprint for this life was set out for all time in the Ten Commandments that God gave the Jews through Moses on Sinai about thirteen centuries before Christ. Yesterday’s Christians saw them as (to quote the title of William Barclay’s exposition of them) The Plain Man’s Guide to Ethics. They were right. Today’s world, even today’s church, has largely forgotten them (could you recite them?). That is our folly and loss. For here, in nugget form, is the wisdom we need.
Because Scripture calls God’s Ten Commandments “law” we assume they are like the law of the land, a formal code of dos and don’ts, restricting personal freedom for the sake of public order. But the comparison is wrong. Torah (Hebrew for “law”) means the sort of instruction a good parent gives his child. Proverbs 1:8 and 6:20 actually use torah for parental teaching.
Think of all the wise man’s words to his son in Proverbs 1:8–8:36 as addressed to us by our heavenly Father himself (as indeed they are, as in Augustine’s true phrase, “what thy Scripture says, thou dost say”). That will give you a right idea of the nature and purpose of God’s law. It is there not to thwart self-expression (though it may sometimes feel like that—for children hate discipline!) but to lead us into those ways that are best for us. God’s parental law expresses God’s parental love.
Some read the Old Testament as so much primitive groping and guesswork, which the New Testament sweeps away. But “God . . . spoke by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1), of whom Moses was the greatest (see Deuteronomy 34:10–12); and his Commandments, given through Moses, set a moral and spiritual standard for living that is not superseded but carries God’s authority forever. Note that Jesus’ twofold law of love, summarizing the Commandments, comes from Moses’ own God-taught elaboration of them (for that is what the Pentateuchal law-codes are). “Love . . . your God” is from Deuteronomy 6:5, “love your neighbor” from Leviticus 19:18.
It cannot be too much stressed that Old Testament moral teaching (as distinct from the Old Testament revelation of grace) is not inferior to that of the New Testament, let alone the conventional standards of our time. The barbarities of lawless sex, violence, exploitation, cutthroat business methods, class warfare, disregard for one’s family, and the like are sanctioned only by our modern secular society. The supposedly primitive Old Testament, and the 3,000-year-old Commandments in particular, are bulwarks against all these things.
But (you say) doesn’t this sort of talk set the Old Testament above Christ? Can that be right? Surely teaching that antedates him by a millennium and a quarter must be inferior to his? Surely the Commandments are too negative, always and only saying “don’t . . .”? Surely we must look elsewhere for full Christian standards? Fair queries; but there is a twofold answer.
First, Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17) that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it; that is, to be, and help others to be, all that God in the Commandments had required. What Jesus destroyed was inadequate expositions of the law, not the law itself (Matthew 5:21–48; 15:1–9; etc.). By giving truer expositions, he actually republished the law. The Sermon on the Mount itself consists of themes from the Decalogue developed in a Christian context.
Second, the negative form of the Commandments has positive implications. “Where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 99). The negative form was needed at Sinai (as in the West today) to curb current lawlessness that threatened both godliness and national life. But the positive content pointed out by Christ—loving God with all one’s powers, and one’s neighbor as oneself—is very clearly there.