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The Ten Commandments

We live in lawless times. We are not surprised that the unbelieving world has no time for God’s holy Law. But it’s extremely troubling when so many professing Christians have neither interest in nor love for God’s law.

Thankfully Mark Rooker and Phil Ryken have written books that communicate a deep love for God and his law, and a real passion to see God’s law restored to its rightful place in society, as well as in the church and the Christian life.

But while these two books have the same subject matter, the Ten Commandments, they approach them and present them in different ways. I’ll review Mark Rooker’s book first, and then Philip Ryken’s.

The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century 

Mark Rooker is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. He begins his book with an introductory chapter on the influence, significance, enumeration, divisions, background, context and addressees of the Ten Commandments. He then looks at each commandment from five angles:

  • The ancient Near Eastern background
  • The original meaning of the commandment
  • The way the commandments was observed or disobeyed in the Old Testament
  • The New Testament use of the commandment
  • Contemporary significance and application

The concluding chapter deals with the interrelationship of the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Covenant, Israel and the law, the church and the law, the New Testament and the law, and the place of the law in the Christian life.

Strengths

First, this is a fine example of premier evangelical scholarship. Rooker thoroughly exegetes the Hebrew text, and also interacts with both ancient and modern Christian and Jewish scholarship.

Second, this volume presents an excellent biblical theology of the Ten Commandments. Rooker does not just explain the commandments as originally given, and then jump to today. After explaining the historical and cultural background to each commandment, he traces the commandment through the Old and New Testaments. Following this biblical trajectory is hugely helpful when it comes to understanding and applying the commandments today.

Third, Rooker explains the Ten Commandments in their redemptive context, as a response to God’s gracious redemptive acts, not as a means of redemption. Towards the end of the book, he has an excellent section on Old Testament salvation by grace through faith (180), although it does seem to be somewhat contradicted on page 190 when Rooker says that while God demanded obedience from Israel, he did not provide the means or ability to obey.

Fourth, although I disagree with Rooker’s view of the role of the fourth commandment in the New Testament (see below), his work on the Old Testament theology of the fourth commandment is outstanding (74-94).

Weaknesses

First, this book will not be so useful to you if you don’t know some Hebrew. In fact, Rooker’s book is considerably more demanding on the intellect than Ryken’s. That’s not a criticism, but you would really need at least a graduate level of education to profit from this book.

Second, I was a bit confused by Rooker’s treatment of the fourth commandment. He argues strongly for the unchanging validity and permanence of the Ten Commandments:

The Ten Commandments are foundational for ethics and religious instruction. Or as Josh McDowell has stated, ‘The Ten Commandments . . . represent the most famous codification of absolute truth in the history of humanity’ . . . (3); The Ten Commandments express the eternal will of God . . . (6); As these commandments mirror the character of God . . . (10); The Ten Commandments are absolute and ultimate . . . (199); the Ten Commandments manifest the attributes of God (199), etc.

But, to me at least, he fatally weakens his argument by arguing that the fourth commandment is not binding on the Christian today. It is hard to argue that the Ten Commandments are “foundational” “absolute truth” and “the eternal will of God” and then say that one is no longer applicable either because it is not mentioned in the New Testament (debatable), or because there were some “typical” elements attached to it in the Old Testament that were fulfilled in the New.

On the basis of Acts 15, Rooker states, “The Sabbath law was no longer binding on the people of God” (97). But then, having said that, Rooker concludes his chapter by saying, “the principles involved in observance of the Sabbath law are applicable today. The principles of work, rest, and worship that emerge from the Sabbath law are extremely meaningful in their application to the contemporary Christian” (99–100). He then goes on to give an excellent exposition of these principles, which sound very like Sabbath-keeping to me!

I know it is unintentional, but I sometimes wonder how much we unwittingly undermine the whole argument for absolute and unchanging truth by undermining the place of the fourth commandment. If the Ten Commandments are now only nine-strong, where has absolute truth gone?

Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis

Philip Ryken was senior minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for nine years. In 2010 he became president of Wheaton College. This book, like most of Ryken’s work, was originally preached. Ryken’s thorough scholarship is present as usual, but each chapter has an intense pastoral heartbeat.

The three introductory chapters are outstanding for their clarity and consistency. I’d like to put these first 55 pages in the hand of every pastor. In fact I’d like to put them in the mind and heart of every Christian. Ryken does a wonderful job of distinguishing between the law and the gospel, and showing their relationship to each other and to the Christian life.

Each commandment is then given a separate chapter, with the last chapter being an epilogue on Christ as “The End of the Law.”

Strengths

First, Ryken is a master at inductive preaching and writing. He draws the listener reader in with a story, a quotation, a film, a book, a historical event, etc., and then shows how God’s Word speaks to human need. He seems to have an endless supply of “perfect” introductions and applications!

Second, Ryken shows how relevant the Ten Commandments are for modern life, and works out the difficult detail of how to apply them.

Third, these chapters are full of pastoral love and warmth. They are clear and practical with lots of contemporary application, and challenging study questions.

Weaknesses

Maybe Ryken’s book might be criticized for being “more of the same.” There are a lot of books out there that compile a pastor’s sermons on the Ten Commandments. However, I can’t think of too many that rival the quality of Ryken’s.

Conclusion

Both books have their place. Ryken’s will have wider appeal. But Rooker has provided academics and pastors with a well-referenced resource for further studies. If you have never studied or preached through the Ten Commandments before, then start with Ryken. If you want to deepen and broaden your understanding, then go for Rooker’s.


Philip Graham Ryken. Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral CrisisP&R Publishing, 2010. 240 pp.

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