Book Review: The Ten Commandments, by Kevin DeYoung

Review
02.28.2019

Kevin DeYoung, The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them. Crossway, 2018. 203 pages.

The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger is a lapsed Baptist. He learned how to sing in a Baptist choir, and his deacon dad, a nationally regarded PE instructor, taught him a calisthenics regimen and diet that Jagger still uses.[1]

It may be that Jagger’s astounding success and longevity are due to his selective obedience of the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” As I read Jagger’s story I couldn’t help but wonder, “do American evangelicals selectively obey the Ten Commandments in the same way he does?” Evangelicals frequently sideline God’s law when discussing sanctification, evangelism, discipleship, and childrearing. Additionally, some evangelicals tend to shudder at the faintest hint of legalism but don’t share the same response to antinomianism. The Bible, however, condemns both salvation by works and lawlessness.

Recovering the Ten Commandments in the Christian Life

In The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them, Kevin DeYoung offers a cure to our problems with both legalism and license. He argues that the Ten Commandments provide an inspired teaching device to help Christians understand how to love and follow God after trusting in Christ. Each chapter is filled with careful theological reasoning, rich application, and pastoral meditations.

DeYoung carefully considers each commandment within the Mosaic Covenant and in relation to Christ’s fulfillment of the law. He unpacks the moral intent of the Decalogue through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount.

In the introduction, he points out that approaching the law with the wrong perspective and apart from faith in Christ is spiritually disastrous “Working hard to obey the Ten Commandments from the wrong end is a surefire way to live out our relationship with God in the wrong way” (21). The reason we ought to obey God’s law is neither to merit earthly success nor attain salvation—“salvation is not the reward for obedience; salvation is the reason for obedience” (25). Jesus reminds us: “‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ All of our doing is only because of what he has first done for us” (25).

Further, DeYoung reminds us that the coming of Christ did not abrogate the law, but rather fulfilled the commands so as to establish a new sort of obedience:

How do we make progress in obeying the Ten Commandments? By turning to Christ, trusting that this Immanuel is the way, the truth, and the life; that he tells us the truth, so we listen to him and believe him; that he is the only way to be forgiven, so that when we fall short of these commandments (and we will), we can run to him for mercy. We believe that he is life, and that his commands are meant to give us life so that we may follow him and have an abundant life (166-167).

Applying the Law Well

DeYoung’s explanation of the law of God is a fresh reassertion of historic Reformed theology and practice—particularly with regard to the third use of the law. DeYoung explains that Christians are not meant to find God’s law burdensome but a delight (23; cf. 1 Jn 5:3). As he explains, God’s laws “are rules for a free people to stay free” (24).

One thing DeYoung does particularly well is show how the Ten Commandments governed the more obscure commandments in the Old Testament For instance, he shows how “sacrificing one’s children to the false god Molech was considered a violation of the third commandment because it profaned the name of God (Lev. 18:21)” (54). Likewise he notes the application of the sixth commandment, “thou shall not murder” in Israel’s civil laws about parapets on flat roofs (Deut. 22:8): “We’re not worried about having parapets on our roof. But we have laws that require a fence around below-ground pools” (97). Whether caused by premeditated intent or sheer negligence, murder is murder. God’s moral will was expressed through Israel’s civil laws.

DeYoung also thoughtfully handles his discussion of the fourth commandment—the only one of the ten that carries a combination of the moral and ceremonial law. Old Testament believers rested on Saturday, whereas the New Testament church worshiped on the Lord’s Day or Sunday. For Christians, the ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath command create room for us to charitably disagree on how to understand and apply the fourth commandment in our new covenant context. As DeYoung reminds us, “Even within the Reformed tradition there are different understandings of what it means to observe the Sabbath” (64).

The Law and the Gospel

Regrettably, American evangelicals are sometimes known more for their commitment to public displays of the Ten Commandments than to actually obeying them. Yet, throughout the history of the church, pastors and theologians have regularly upheld the Ten Commandments as a faithful summary of God’s character and of his requirements for humanity. The church desperately needs to recover this thoughtful practice of meditating on the Ten Commandments as we, trusting the promises of the gospel, pursue conformity to Christ.

DeYoung also repeatedly shows how the crushing weight of these tablets of stone are lifted by the cross. For instance, he shows how the terrifying ramifications for transgressing the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” are exhausted in Jesus:

Remember that Jesus breathed his last breath, died on the cross, and was crucified between two thieves—absolute violators of the eight commandment. . . . In that dying breath, he gave the man a promise of an inheritance. . . ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (138-39).

This book is a faithful meditation on the Decalogue and helpfully unpacks God’s law for a contemporary American audience. Pastors considering how to rightly preach the law of God to their congregation will find numerous examples of how to do so in this book. In the end, churches should heed DeYoung’s thoughtful challenge:

If we want to love Christ as he deserves and as he desires, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). And that means as we keep in step with the Spirit (not to mention, keep in step with the most of church history), we would do well to remember the Ten Commandments, which are foundational for all the others (171).


[1] Adam Edwards, “RIP Jumping Jack Flash Senior,” The Telegraph Online, November 14, 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandjazzmusic/3656537/RIP-Jumping-Jack-Flash-senior.html (accessed February 11, 2019).