It’s not as if we hadn’t been warned. During the middle of the twentieth century, the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned that Europeans and Americans lived in “a world come of age,” by which he meant a world in which they had learned to manage life without reference to God, and that this experiment in God-less-ness would not go well. Similarly, sociologist Philip Rieff warned that our society’s cultural elite have long been engaged in an effort to sever society and culture from any religious bearings or transcendent moral framework, and that this effort would cause significant harm to our society and culture.
What Bonhoeffer, Rieff, and others prophesied has increasingly come to fruition. In place of God, our society worships the self. As Carl Trueman has demonstrated in his excellent academic treatise, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and what Trevin Wax has illumined in his more accessible volume, Rethink the Self, Americans are beholden to a phenomenon often called “expressive individualism” (EI). This phenomenon is one in which people believe that the purpose of life is to be authentic; that the way for an individual to be authentic is to follow his or her own desires; and that the way for a society to be just is to applaud individuals for following their own desires. Suffice it to say that an individual’s desires often conflict with God’s desire for him or her, and that when we follow our warped desires, it is bad for the individual and bad for society.
But it is not only society that suffers from the malady of godlessness. It is also our cultural institutions. When individuals manage life without reference to God, and when we follow our own often-warped desires instead of conforming to God’s life-giving law, our sins and foolishness coalesce at the cultural level to infect institutions systemically. Consider the damage done to creation’s most basic institution—the family—by parental abuse, familial dysfunction, divorce, and other maladies. Similarly, consider the corruption and dysfunction found in our educational, legal, legislative, commercial, and entertainment institutions.
One sphere of culture that repeatedly and visibly reveals the nature of our problem is that of government and politics. The purpose of government is to achieve justice for the various individuals and communities under its purview. The purpose of politics is to persuade our fellow citizens and elected officials on how to achieve the justice for which we strive. Yet, often government perpetuates injustice and citizens use their political power to support those injustices.
Thus, American Christians are well-served to reflect upon how we can be “salt and light” in our broken society and culture. When Jesus urged his disciples to be “salt” he knew that his audience would understand well the preserving and seasoning power of salt. In his day—an era without refrigerators or freezers—his audience knew well that meat could be preserved by rubbing it down with salt and placing it in a cool place. Best of all, the salt would not only preserve the meat but season it also. Yet, to be effective, the salt had to remain chemically pure. It couldn’t be mixed with sand, for example, or it would be ruined. The implication for Jesus’ disciples is that we should conform to God’s law (remaining spiritually pure) instead of becoming contaminated by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, or the pride of life.
How can we conform to God’s law? By studying it, understanding its implications, praying it back to God, and relying on his grace daily. Jesus divided the moral law into two categories, love for God and love for neighbor, thus pointing us back to the Ten Commandments—also known as the Decalogue or the “Ten Words.” This series, therefore, explores the Ten Words with an eye toward fleshing out its implications for individuals, for society, and for our culture and especially the political sphere of culture.
We will begin the series with an introduction, comparing Christian ethics to other ethical systems, explaining the nature of God’s law, and relating the law the Christian gospel. We will follow it with an exposition of the Bible’s prologue to the Ten Commandments. Finally, we will explore each of the Ten Commandments with an eye toward their implications for individuals, society, and culture. Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t call these instructions “commandments” but rather “words.” Thus, we will embark upon an exploration of God’s “Ten Words for a Broken Society.” The hope is that this series will be beneficial for Christians of all walks—not merely pastors and politicians—as we seek to be salt and light in our nation.
Before concluding this preface, however, it must be noted that there are two kinds of people in the world: law-keepers and lawbreakers. And, as it turns out, only one person falls in the “law-keeper” category—Jesus Christ. He embodied God’s moral law and showed us what it looks like to flourish under God’s loving plan for human life. Further, he died a sacrificial death and offered us forgiveness for our lawbreaking. Therefore, the rest of us—lawbreakers as we are—should approach God’s law humbly and with awareness that we need God’s grace to learn to live as law-keepers under his benevolent reign. We are broken people in need of his loving restoration.