Exodus 20:1-17 is a list. This list is uncomfortably long and descriptive. If there ever was a demonstration of the word “Law,” this is it. The list, of course, is the 10 Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before me. … You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. … Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (verses 3, 7-8). These are only the first three, but already we’re starting to sweat. We’ve bowed down to the gods of money or pride. We’ve used God’s name inappropriately in frustration and anger. We’ve forgotten about the Sabbath day.
So what now? Do we give up? After all, these are unattainable expectations from the start. They mean so much more than they seem to say directly. Luther’s Small Catechism gives this explanation of the fifth commandment, “You shall not murder.” “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Not only does this commandment forbid us from harming our neighbors at all, it charges us to help and support them whenever they need it. That’s a lot to expect from people who can’t get past the first commandment without tripping!
Right now, we’re feeling pretty foolish and weak. We might even be feeling low and despised, unworthy of the gaze of God. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1st Cor. 1:27-29). We have been chosen, this passage tells us, and we are not even to try to boast in ourselves. That’s good news, because we have nothing to boast about.
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1st Cor. 30-31). It turns out we do have something to boast about: our chosen state, our holiness given to us by Christ Jesus! We would have no chance of holiness if Exodus was all we had to go by – if the Law was all we had. But we do have that chance of holiness found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because God has chosen us, because he sent his Son to die for us, we have the holiness of God.