A little over 17 years ago, the chief justice for the state of Alabama ordered a two-ton monument depicting the Ten Commandments to be erected in the Alabama Supreme Court building. I’m not a legal scholar, but as I understand it, that action was determined to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) The monument was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court building a few years later.
While the effort to instill in the general public an appreciation for the Ten Commandments in Alabama may have been misguided, followers of Christ taking time out to recognize the value of God’s Law during this season of Lent is not. But that raises the question: why, and how? Why should a Christian man or woman who has been liberated from the Law in Christ not simply dispense with the Law all together? After all, did not St. Paul himself, addressing Christians in Rome, say “You are not under the Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14)? And is it not true that people who trace their theological lineage back to Jesus through Martin Luther are people who champion salvation “by grace alone (sola gratia)” (Eph 2:8)? Yes, and yes. Making a monument to the Ten Commandments—and not the Word of God, more broadly—may indeed lead us down the primrose path of thinking we get on God’s good side because of what WE do or have done. But here’s the thing: Romans 6:14 is also followed by verse 15: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” Paul then answers his own question with a Greek phrase my Greek professor once translated: “Heck no!” Yes, God’s grace does trump everything, in the end. But that doesn’t mean that we naturally recognize the grace of God for what it is: God’s free gift of grace for sinners like us. I find it way easier to see my neighbor’s need for the Ten Commandments than my own. And I honestly like to listen to people and books and other media that tell me I’m actually a pretty decent guy, just the way I am. I need to look elsewhere in the letters of Paul to read what I need to hear: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ … The Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).
When the law shows me my sin, I’m looking at a dirty face in a mirror. I know I need a wash. And that brings us to the “how” question. How can we meditate on the Ten Commandments during this season of Lent in a way that is wholesome and beneficial? By never stopping at the Commandments but being driven to the cross of Christ and celebrating that, in Jesus, our sins are forgiven! Holy Baptism, that divine washing, was God’s answer to our own need. And we recall it every Sunday as we gather for Confession and Absolution. Take time this week to read over the Decalogue again (especially the version with explanations, in Luther's Small Catechism) and consider your own need for God’s abundant grace. As you witness the baptism of Chloe Shumaker this Sunday, give thanks for your own baptism, your own spiritual washing, where the old person in you has been drowned and the new person in you is still coming to life.
Sermon Outline answers: 1. Stairway; 2. Checklist; 3. Washing; puts...death; 4. Holy Baptism