The 10th Commandment; The Righteousness that God Requires

April 14, 2024 / No. 4241

Dear radio friends,

At the end of a school term a teacher often gives the students a test. That test covers all the material that has been taught that term; by taking the test, the student shows how well he has learned the material.

We come today to the end of our instruction in the school of God’s law. We have learned how to show love for God and love for the neighbor. We have learned to refrain from idolatry, wrong worship, using Jehovah’s name flippantly, not keeping the Sabbath day holy, dishonoring authorities, killing, sexual sins, stealing, and lying. We have learned positively to show love in every possible way. And in the tenth commandment, God is going to give us a test.

The test is this: how well have we obeyed? Have we kept the law? Have we kept every commandment of the law? Have we kept every commandment perfectly? Do we possess in ourselves the righteousness that is necessary for us to enjoy fellowship with God? Those who pass the test will say “No, I have not kept the law perfectly; I cannot provide the righteousness that is necessary for me to have fellowship with God. So poorly have I performed, so have I disobeyed God’s law, that I cannot enjoy God’s favor, except my sins are covered in the blood of Christ, and His righteousness is given to me.” The tenth commandment enforces this on us, when it reminds us that we are not to covet–that is, that we are to keep God’s law from our heart.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day answered the question differently. They did not kill, they did not commit adultery, and they did not steal. They were different from the tax collectors and other sinners. They kept the law, they thought; they had a righteousness that could get them places. So it is striking that, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus told those who heard His interpretation of God’s law that their righteousness must exceed, be greater than, that of the scribes and Pharisees. He said this even before He began interpreting the ten commandments and showing that they were still in force.

Listen to His words in Matthew 5:17-20:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

On the basis of the instruction especially of verse 20, and in light of the tenth commandment which reads “Thou shalt not covet,” we consider today the righteousness that God requires. We are going to learn first that it is a real righteousness–that is, it must be a perfect obedience to God’s law on the part of man. And we are going to learn that we cannot obtain or bring forth that righteousness; if God declares us to have kept His law, it can only be that He sees the righteousness of another person in us and declares that the righteousness of that other person has earned His favor.

So, first, let us emphasize that in His law God requires a perfect righteousness, a sinless obedience.

We must understand that the word righteousness, as it is used in Scripture, has different shades of meaning. One shade of meaning is that it refers to our actual keeping of God’s law. We begin with that shade of meaning. God makes known in His law that He requires us to obey His law perfectly, sinlessly, in every respect, at all times, with our whole being. This is the point Jesus is making in Matthew 5:20. The scribes and Pharisees presented themselves as keeping the law perfectly. But a righteousness even greater than theirs is necessary for one to enter the kingdom of heaven. Theirs, Jesus is saying, was not enough.

The tenth commandment underscores this point. On the surface, it forbids coveting, which is an unlawful desire. To be clear, it does not forbid all desire as such. My desire for food when hungry, for rest when tired, or for social friendships when lonely, is not inherently wrong. Nor is it wrong to see a car, decide I can use that car in the service of Christ my King, and buy it for a fair value. What the tenth commandment forbids is a burning desire to have that which is my neighbor’s, and therefore which I may not have. It forbids me to set my heart on that thing, to think that happiness consists in having that thing, and so deciding that I will get that thing regardless of how.

But in forbidding coveting, it appears to cover territory that the law of God has previously covered. It forbids me to covet the neighbor’s wife; so did the seventh commandment. It forbids me to covet his possessions, cattle, fields; so did the eighth commandment. It forbids me to covet his house, which refers to his family life; in a sense, the fifth commandment touched on these things. Is the tenth commandment repetitious?

No, it is not repetitious. What makes it different is that the other nine commandments, in their express requirements, governed our outward actions. I steal, or kill, or commit adultery, with my hands and feet and body. I lie against my neighbor with my tongue. We saw that each of these commands also pertained to our hearts and thoughts, but on the surface they regard actions of my body. But the tenth commandment touches on the heart. I do not covet with my mouth or hands or feet; I covet in my heart. Have you kept the law perfectly? This is the test that God gives us at the end of studying His law. “Do you think,” He is saying to us, “that you are pleasing to me because you didn’t do anything forbidden? Then I have one more word for you: do not ever, in the least way, desire what belongs to your neighbor.” He is showing us that what is needed is perfect righteousness.

That God requires perfect righteousness of us is further underscored by our remembering what the law requires of us positively. Each negative prohibition in the ten commandments implies a positive requirement: the prohibition to covet what belongs to my neighbor implies a calling to be content with what God has given us. We are to be content with our spouse, with our family, with our possessions, with our servants (which today means our appliances and cars). To be content is not to view them as having no faults at all; it is rather to say that they are sufficient; they serve us well; we do not need to replace them. This is perfect righteousness: contentment with what God gives.

To do so perfectly is the righteousness that God requires of us, the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and the righteousness that permits one to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Do you have this righteousness? Does yours exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Not a one of us may answer “Yes” to that question; each must say “No.” As we take this test, asking whether we have kept the law and can enter heaven because we have perfectly obeyed, we must say no. Rather, we have sinned, and we are sinners.

If we thought all was well with us, the preaching and teaching of the law underscores it is not so. Paul said in Romans 7:7: “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” In other words, the explanation of the law leads a person to say, “No, I have not kept it; I am a sinner.”

Now this lesson is driven home by the example of every believer whose life is mentioned in Scripture. Not a one of them kept the law perfectly; not a one of them had a righteousness, in themselves, that exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. Noah got drunk; David committed adultery and murder; Peter denied his Lord; and Paul himself had killed Christians. In other words, none of us can enter heaven on the basis of our own keeping of the law! To the contrary, we deserve hell!

Realizing this, some suggest that God has relaxed the requirements of the law. Because He realized that we could not keep the law perfectly, they say, He no longer requires us to keep the law perfectly. Rather, He is satisfied with our imperfect obedience, as long as we also believe in Christ. This, however, cannot be. Clearly, in the Old Testament He required exact and perfect obedience. We read in Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.” The idea is that a man who violated the law in one area–Deuteronomy said in one word–must bear God’s curse. This was God’s Word to Israel; and in Deuteronomy 27:26 all the people said “Amen,” indicating both that they understood it and that they understood the justice of it. But the apostle Paul quotes that verse in Galatians 3:10, not as if it is no longer true in the New Testament, but to underscore that it remains true.

Let’s be clear: at no time does God relax the requirements of His law. Think of what would be true of Him if He did: He would be a God who changed; He would be a God who didn’t get it right the first time, so that His wisdom is undermined; He would be a God who had to admit that His first attempt at legislation was not righteous. Being the unchanging, wise, righteous God that He is, He required Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to obey His law perfectly, and punished them when they did not; He required the Israelites to obey His law perfectly, and punished them when they did not; and He requires us to obey His law perfectly, and punishes us when we do not.

Jesus is making this clear to the people who are following Him. Outwardly, the scribes and Pharisees appeared to keep the law very well. If that were enough, Jesus would have congratulated them for so doing. Rather, He says that our righteousness must be greater than theirs: it must be perfect, it must be heartfelt, it must be a righteousness to every command of God’s law. Nothing less will suffice.

Who, then, can be saved? Who has obeyed Him this perfectly?

The answer is that no mere man has; no mere man can be saved by his own obedience. Only one man has ever obeyed perfectly, and that is Jesus Christ. Jesus can enjoy God’s favor and go to heaven; He has obeyed! His is the perfect righteousness, the only one that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees! He obeyed perfectly in that He kept each one of the ten commandments; He loved God and His neighbor with a true love; and His worship of God was a perfect worship. In addition, He showed that His righteousness was perfect in that He went willingly to the death of the cross, being commanded by His heavenly Father to do so, even though He had not sinned. In dying on the cross, He bore God’s curse; for Deuteronomy also said, as Paul reminds us in Galatians, “Cursed is everyone that hangs on a tree.” Obediently, willingly, submissively, Christ went to the cross. His righteousness is perfect!

Now we, being sinners, are completely without hope of salvation–unless somehow that perfect righteousness of Christ becomes ours! And indeed, it has–this is the declaration of the gospel!

For when Christ died on the cross, the perfectly sinless one bearing the wrath of God as if He were a sinner, God was showing that He lifted the guilt of the sins of His people off our shoulders and laid it upon Christ. He viewed Christ as guilty on our behalf; He sent Christ to represent a whole body of sinners, and He punished Christ for those sinners. Consequently, the perfect righteousness that Jesus Christ has, He shares with us sinners. Our righteousness now exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, because it is a perfect righteousness! And it is truly ours–and yet it is Christ’s, which He shares with us!

Do you remember that early on in this broadcast I said that the word “righteousness” has different shades of meaning? Its basic meaning is to speak of one as perfectly keeping God’s law. But earlier I said it can be used to refer to my own righteousness, my own keeping of the law. And yet I have not kept the law. Now we see that it also is used in Scripture to refer to another’s perfect keeping of the law, which righteousness that other person shares with us. The other person is Christ. The righteousness that we now have was not our own; it was His. So we call it alien righteousness; the righteousness of another person. Yet God, as judge, declared that Christ’s perfect and infinite righteousness be shared with His people: we call it an imputed righteousness, one that God legally declares to be ours. So, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, God declares us to have that perfect righteousness that is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, that righteousness that is necessary for us to be brought into God’s favor, to be given all the blessings of salvation, and finally to be brought to heaven!

What love and grace of God for sinners! He knew that He would require perfect obedience! He knew that Adam would fall into sin, and that all Adam’s posterity could not obey perfectly! He knew that He could not change His law, being wise, and unchanging, and righteous! So He sent His only-begotten Son to obey in our place, and to share with us the blessings of that perfect obedience! That is the gospel!

Now some say that this way of presenting the gospel has a serious flaw: it makes us think that we can keep living in sin, because we are righteous in Christ anyway. However, the serious flaw is not the presentation of the gospel that I gave; the serious flaw is the allegation that those who believe this gospel can keep living in sin.

We can point to several evidences that the idea that we, being righteous in Christ, may keep sinning, is wrong. First, God gave Israel the law after she came out of Egypt. After giving us a great picture of our redemption in Christ, by bringing her out of the bondage of Egypt, He said: you are now to live differently, as redeemed people! Second, as we have noted over the past several weeks, the law consists of many prohibitions: “Thou shalt not.” This is God reminding His people that we may not sin; He is not pleased with sin. Third, Jesus Christ speaks of that righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees—in other words, Jesus speaks of that perfect righteousness by which we are saved–in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, in which He is teaching that the law is still in force for the New Testament Christian.

Yes, we must obey the law. And yet we cannot obey the law. Christ obeyed for us. He also renews us by His Spirit so that we desire to begin to obey that which we cannot perfectly obey. God’s people make a real, though imperfect, beginning of obedience in this life. And that real, though imperfect, obedience does not get added to Christ’s to earn our salvation; it is the fruit, the effect, the result, of Christ’s work in us, and our gratitude for salvation.

So we come to the end of our instruction in God’s law. The child of God holds this law before him; he is guided by it; he looks into it, as one looks into a mirror in the morning. And every time we look into it, we see how far short we have fallen, what sinners we are. We see that we cannot be saved of ourselves. But every time we look into it, we also remember that Jesus obeyed it perfectly, and shares His righteousness with us–so that we pray for forgiveness. And every time we look into it, we are reminded of that perfect ideal that, although we cannot reach, we strive toward–so that we pray for the increased power of the Holy Spirit to begin to obey. And every time we look into it, we are reminded that one day we will attain that perfect ideal; we will be able to obey the law perfectly. For in heaven, we will not sin, but will love God and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ with a perfect, unending love–reflecting God’s perfect and unending love for us!