The Ten Commandments which we find in Exodus chapter 20 have often been used as the basis of a country’s legal framework. What they give us, in fact, is the clearest insight into the standard which God has set for humanity and which we’ve failed to live up to. Let’s take a look at them again:

“You shall have no other gods before Me.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

“You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Let’s check out how we are doing by counting down from the tenth to the first of the commandments.

We’re told not to covet what belongs to our neighbour, including our neighbour’s wife. The now natural habit of humans to compare themselves with others opens up the possibility, in fact the likelihood, for us to be envious and jealous of what others have. Then we’re commanded not to steal, which would require us to always have had total integrity in matters of filing expense claims and when making tax declarations etc. Next we’re told not to tell lies. At this point we might recall again the story of the minister, the boys and the stray dog.

A clergyman was walking down the street when he came to a group of about a dozen boys between 10 and 12 years of age. The boys surrounded an old dog. Concerned that the boys were hurting the animal, the minister went over and asked, “What are you doing with that dog?”

One of the boys replied, “This dog is just an old stray. We all want him, but only one of us can take him home. So we’ve decided whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie gets to keep the dog.” The minister was taken aback. “You boys shouldn’t have a contest telling lies,” he said. “Don’t you boys know it’s a sin to lie?” Then he began a 10-minute sermon about lying and ended with, “When I was your age, I never told a lie.”

There was complete silence lasting about a minute afterwards, and just as the minister was beginning to think he’d really got through to them, the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and with a shrug of resignation said, “All right, give him the dog!”

The command against adultery comes next. Adulterers and fornicators – all the sexually immoral – whether that impurity is before or outside of marriage, will be judged by God. It makes no difference at all if those kind of behaviours are regarded less seriously by society. The ruin of families and the trauma inflicted on children are more than sufficient testimony to the correctness of God’s standard.

Then there’s the command against murder, the taking of another human life. Who could argue that it’s not deeply encoded within our being that taking the life of another fellow human is a gross and fundamental violation of something sacred – the sanctity of human life?

Next up is the command about honouring our parents. At some point throughout childhood that requirement defeated us all – even if it wasn’t a major rebellion. The rebellious streak cuts very deeply into the human psyche, does it not?

Having respect for a day of rest in each weekly cycle is involved in the fourth of the famous commandments. Of course, in its original setting, this carried with it the requirement to be reflective about God’s dealings with us, and so to be grateful and reverential for his providence. I suppose such things would very widely get short shrift in most quarters today. Perhaps, it’s nearer the mark that we’ve made a requirement, if not a virtue, out of 24/7 working, leaving no place for the ‘distraction’ of thinking about the God question.

And what about the command that was given as the third in the original list? It’s the command against taking God’s name in vain. For those with any sympathy for this, it is grating, if not galling, to hear the inevitable, overblown reaction of ‘O my God’ – or OMG in text language, which has become, it seems, a required and fashionable way of behaving. It completely fails to register – even alas to professing Christians – that this is an empty and inappropriate use of God’s name – and one which therefore breaks the third command.

Next up is the command not to worship anything other than God our creator, and not to have wrong mental images of him. I wonder how our lives measure up to this when we think of what we direct our time, money and energies towards.

And then, at number one, we’re faced up with our failure to live with our relationship with God as number one priority in life. Here, we most definitely can only talk in terms of failure … which only goes to demonstrate what the Bible says in Romans 3:12 about none being good. Allow me to quote that verse, for we do need to absorb its significance: “All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.”

If you take all the mangoes from a mango tree … it doesn’t become a coconut tree. And in the same way, if we even try to stop all our bad deeds, we don’t become good, but we’re still sinners by nature with evil thoughts.

The fact is that no-one born of human parents has ever been approved by God by doing the good works of the Law (Galatians 2:16). The way the Bible puts it is as follows in … “nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”

So, altogether, what we’ve seen is this: we’ve failed to live up to God’s standard, in fact God’s candid verdict on all our lives – again without exception – is that we’re not good. We are capable, for sure, of wanting to make the effort to do good works, but even this cannot bring us acceptance with God. What then must we do to escape the eternal punishment we deserve?

The preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, and his apostles all began with one word: and that word was ‘repent’! It was a command to turn our behaviour away from bad works, for sure … but also to turn our trust away from our own good works as well. And instead, believe what the Word of God says about us and about the grace of God.

And it says that without blood being spilled there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:23). What does that mean? We need to remember that the Bible says that sin results in death (Romans 6:23) – the soul that sins dies – meaning that only the lifeblood of a substitute dying in our place can rescue us from guilt. There is, for us all, only one acceptable substitute – Jesus – God declared from heaven that the life of Jesus was good – the only one good and perfect and acceptable to take our place.

That’s why he came to die … that’s why God allowed the brutal cruelty of the cross to happen. If God had not planned it, it for sure could never have been possible for men to do that terrible thing. Jesus is our only sacrifice – once for ever on the cross – he bore our sins; died for them; took our blame; and suffered our guilt and shame – all to set us free.

But that freedom, that forgiveness is not automatic. The Bible teaches our only – but very necessary – responsibility is to receive God’s gracious gift of salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

I vividly remember someone illustrating this to me as a young teenager. He held out a £5 note to us and promised to give it to whoever took it. No-one moved. Finally, one lad hesitantly reached out and claimed it. The note was transferred as promised. The point was made. Please don’t you be so reluctant to take God at his word. Reach out in faith and you will receive.