Published on July 27, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Crossway, 2018 | 208 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Jarrett Ford


With a flair for the straightforward, Kevin DeYoung sums up the contents of his book before he even makes it past the title page. The 10 Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them is a book about just that—the ten commandments, what they mean, and why they are to be obeyed. It is this last question, though, that drives the entire project. DeYoung is not trying to merely explain some archaic commandments, whose well-worn words are barely readable upon the stone surface they were once etched. For him, their cuts are fresh, and their edges sharp. They are not irrelevant. They are for today, and most importantly, God wants Christians to follow them (11).

To demonstrate how they are to be followed, DeYoung exposes the heart of the ten famous commands and suggests how this heart still beats. Take, for example, the second commandment. As the ESV renders it, “you shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod 20:5; cf. Deut 5:8). Against the polytheistic culture of the Ancient Near East, this command was probably intended quite literally, condemning gaffs like Aaron’s bewildering golden calf episode. Those living in the modern West (i.e., DeYoung’s primary audience), however, have probably never been tempted by this sort of idolatry, and thus, it is easy for them to see this commandment as a vestige of an era long gone by.

DeYoung presses hard against such a notion. According to him, the second commandment is as relevant now as it was then, even for westerners. The heart of the matter never merely concerned gold, silver, and the images these metals formed. It concerned right worship. God, being God, cares not just about “who?” but “how?” (42).

Today in the West, this commandment condemns not only physical images but also mental ones. “To be sure, we may want to compare God’s love to a warm embrace or imagine God is like a father running to greet his prodigal son, but we ought not make images of the invisible God, even if they are in our imagination” (48). DeYoung also commends the regulative principle, which essentially states that worship practices must be explicitly endorsed by practices found in the Bible. So, for example, if the Bible does not mention dancing in the gathering, then dancing shall not be done even if it is not forbidden. For DeYoung, these two things keep modern believers in step with the ancient commandment. DeYoung follows a similar procedure for the other commands that also seem obscure.

For the commandments that still seem directly applicable in modern days, DeYoung offers expanded versions in a sermon-on-the-mountesque fashion. For example, the fifth commandment (honor your father and mother) “is not just about parents and children but about that relationship as a template for any other relationship of authority we have in our lives” (90). This sort of updating and expanding forms the backbone of DeYoung’s work as he moves through the ten commandments and attempts to answer the three questions posed in his title.

DeYoung’s writing is winsome and thoughtful on a topic that has driven many to become the most curmudgeony version of themselves. Also, this “updating” angle with which he frames his exposition not only has a large portion of church history behind it (as DeYoung repeatedly points out) but also, as already mentioned, Jesus himself. Echoes of Christ’s view on the Law reverberate through DeYoung’s message. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a better modern, popular exposition of the ten commandments.

With that said, the book does leave the reader with a few minor things with which to quibble and one major question. As to the quibbles, there are a couple of places where DeYoung fails to accurately capture the heart of the command. As mentioned earlier, DeYoung argues that the second commandment forbids any images—mental or otherwise—from representing God. The problem with this is that the Bible repeatedly uses multiple images to represent him. Exodus 15:3, for example, calls him a “man of war.” DeYoung clearly recognizes this problem, which is why he makes the qualification he does, but to imagine God as being like a man without the image of a man is impossible to do.

At issue in the second commandment are not images altogether, but the right or wrong images. To continue with the man of war example, it would be wrong to think of God as fickle or cruel as many men of war have been, but it is perfectly permissible, even biblically warranted, to think of God as a valiant warrior, charging into battle for his people. The Bible beckons its readers to use this sort of image to think of God, and if so, then Christians cannot say that all mental image-making is a violation of the second commandment. Again, DeYoung understands this issue. His conclusion simply lands off target.

Something similar could be said about his view on the Sabbath. He starts off the chapter by saying, “every one of the Ten Commandments is still binding, and every one has been deepened and transformed by the coming of Christ, [the Sabbath] commandment more noticeably than the others” (63). In other words, because of texts like Romans 14 and Colossians 2 where Paul seems to disregard the Sabbath, DeYoung thinks that the fourth commandment, although binding, looks very little like what it did under the Old Covenant. It merely obligates Christians to set aside time to rest and worship, and Sunday is the particular day Christians have always used for these purposes (66–73).

Although one cannot help but appreciate DeYoung’s balanced approach, these texts simply say more than DeYoung allows them to. Can Christians learn things from the Sabbath? Yes. Is it ok for Christians to consider Sunday as the new Christian Sabbath? Yes. But are they bound to the Sabbath? It would seem like the answer is simply “no.” Otherwise, Paul’s logic makes no sense. Romans 14 and Colossians 2 seem to say that the Sabbath is no longer binding, but that it is ok if Christians still feel obligated to recognize it because of their sensitive consciences. If this paraphrase accurately captures Paul, then the answer to DeYoung’s question, “Must we keep the fourth commandment?” is not “yes, but” (71). It is “no.”

This second quibble leads to the larger question. Is it right to say that the ten commandments are God’s revealed moral will for all people? That is, are Christians obligated to adhere to the ten commandments? DeYoung clearly thinks the answers to these questions are yes (see pg. 11), but is he right? Without a doubt, this issue is far too complicated to solve in a couple of sentences, but consider some of Paul’s statements.

“You [i.e., Christians] have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another” (Rom 7:4).

“Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7:6).

“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified” (Gal 3:24).

Given what Paul says here, it is hard to see how the ten commandments, the capstone of the law, could be considered (A) God’s moral law for all people at all times and (B) binding for Christians. Again, DeYoung recognizes this issue and marshals Jesus’ use of the law in his conversation with the rich young ruler from Mark 10 and his enigmatic statement about not abolishing the law in Matthew 5:17, but these two texts struggle to overturn Paul’s more explicit statements. Like it was with the Sabbath, then, the answer to the question “are Christians bound to the ten commandments?” seems to be “no.”

DeYoung’s book, therefore, serves as an excellent exposition of one of the most famous portions of the Bible, but the rhythm that threads the pieces together seems slightly offbeat.


Jarrett Ford

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Crossway, 2018 | 208 pages

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