Jen Wilkin: Ten Words to Live By
Isn't Christianity about a relationship, rather than rules? Jen Wilkin, author of Ten Words to Live By, pushes back: Could God's law be the feast we crave?
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Isn’t Christianity about a relationship, rather than rules? Jen Wilkin, author of Ten Words to Live By, pushes back: Could God’s law be the feast we crave?
Jen Wilkin: Ten Words to Live By
Dave: I had fun over the years—30 years of preaching—many, many weekends whenever I’d do the Ten Commandments, like maybe a series or something.
Ann: And you did quite a few sermons on the Ten Commandments.
Dave: Yes; and I think it’s sort of funny—30 years, I bet I did this 5 to maybe 10 different times, every couple of years—it would be a fun exercise, where I’d say, “Okay; we’re going to go through the Ten Commandments today. I want everybody to stand up.” The whole church stands up. I go, “I’m going to read them, start with number one; and if you’ve violated that command, sit down. Let’s see who’s left standing.” [Laughter]
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: Yes, you are. And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: I’d literally go to Exodus 20; and I’d read: “Commandment number one: You shall have no other gods before me.” And maybe five percent of the room sits down; most of the room’s still standing, which—
Ann: —which is astounding.
Dave: I’m like, “Okay, they don’t really know this first commandment,”—anyway, I don’t say anything—I’m like, “Okay, let’s keep going. ‘You shall not take My name in vain,’”—boom! Most of the room goes down—everybody starts laughing—“Okay, we’ve got some people…”
But it’s interesting; you get four, five—
Ann: —who are still up by the end.
Dave: There’s usually most of the room is up into seven, eight [commandments].
But anyway, I bring that up because we’re talking about the Ten Commandments today.
Ann: And I feel like the Ten Commandments—as even Jen Wilkin, who is with us, has said—has bad PR.
Ann: So Jen, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Jen: Oh, thanks for having me, guys.
Dave: Jen, you’ve written a book called The Ten Words to Live By: Delighting in and Doing What God Commands. Tell us what you do.
Jen: I teach the Bible; and I am an advocate for Bible literacy, specifically. I am interested in helping believers know why they believe what they believe, grounded in the Word of God. Some of that is based on the way that I came up in the church. I was in about seven different denominations, growing up, as a child.
Dave: Now wait, wait, wait. Why is that?
Jen: Well, my parents divorced when I was about eight years old.
Dave: This is my story.
Jen: Okay; my mom was a single mom in the church—and that’s an awkward spot, you know—so she was always kind of moving from one church to the next to see where she would fit.
Ann: —those seven churches that kind of shaped this passion in you.
Ann: What happened? How did it shape you?
Jen: Well, because there was always someone standing behind a pulpit, holding the same book; but that person was not always saying the same thing. In my own family story, false teaching took root; so it mattered to me that I know, firsthand, what the Bible said. So I, as far as it was possible with me, decided that, in the local church, I was going to try my best to help give women tools—not just information—so that they would know how to open the Scriptures on their own and better be able to discern whether they were hearing good teaching, bad teaching, false teaching, true teaching.
Dave: Were you young—and you just decided: “I am going to do this,”—and you’ve been doing it for decades?
Jen: It kind of crept up on me. I actually got a business degree—I had an English degree—and got an MBA, because I didn’t want to teach English because that was what most of the people in my family did. I was like, “That looks hard and underappreciated.” And then ended up staying home after I had my first child and was invited to women’s Bible study at the church. I was like, “Oh, I could put clothes on and go somewhere today; that sounds amazing.”
And then in that experience, I started to realize that even what we were calling Bible study a lot of times in the church was not really study. It was either heavily devotional, or it was topical; but it was not necessarily getting people into the Bible itself. So then began to combine the literacy skills that I had learned and used, studying English, to help bring the Bible to people as a book.
Ann: And you’ve written a book called Ten Words to Live By, and it’s about the Ten Commandments. So what brought this to your mind? [Laughter]
Jen: —“enlightened your mind?”
Dave: Yes; “Just take on something…” [Laughter]
Ann: —totally feeling. [Laughter]
Jen: I had sort of entered into ministry—and I say “ministry”—I was a volunteer in my church in the gospel-centered movement. It was these churches that were beautifully focused on the good news of the gospel as it related to grace. There was so much talk about: “No matter how many times you sin, God forgives,” and “The Law actually just judges you; the Law is what establishes your guilt before God.” And so what had ended up, I think, being communicated in those places was: “Grace/good; Law/bad.”
But Law proceeds from the heart of God, just as grace does; but we had no [indecipherable] that bifurcation that people tend to have between Old Testament God and New Testament God; right?
Ann: Yes; the angry God; and then you have Jesus, the grace-giving Friend.
Jen: Right—so Law/Old Testament; grace/New Testament—except that that’s just not what Jesus says, specifically, in the Sermon on the Mount—but also throughout the rest of His ministry; He comes to fulfill the Law.
So then, there is this language that we use in Christian circles, all the time, of: “You know who I want to look like? I want to look like Christ.” But if you want to look like Christ, then you would want to fulfill the Law as Christ did; Christ is the perfect fulfillment of the Law.
The confusion that I think came in is that there was an over-emphasis, in the gospel-centered world, on justification and almost a complete forgetfulness about sanctification in the way that we were talking about things. Whereas in justification, the Law condemns—it does—it is what establishes our guilt before God. In our sanctification, the Law is actually the narrow path that lies beneath our feet. We have positional holiness in Christ, because He fulfills the Law perfectly. But those who enjoy positional holiness will demonstrate practical holiness as a result, and it is God’s good Law that shows us how to live that life of holiness.
Dave: Gee whiz; you’re laying down some stuff. You mention, early in the book—and it’s right along with what you’re saying here is—Christianity is not about rules; it’s about relationship.
Jen: How many times have you heard that?!
Dave: I bet you I’ve said it from the pulpit at times.
Ann: Well, I’ve said it as a parent. [Laughter]
Dave: You’ve said it?
Ann: I’ve said it, as a parent. Josh McDowell said, “Rules without relationship equals rebellion”; but that rules-part is in there, and it’s important.
Dave: Well, yes. Let’s talk, because you do such a good job of even this phrase: “Rules enable relationships.”
Jen: Yes, absolutely.
Dave: I’m not putting words in your mouth; tell us how we should understand this.
Jen: Well, so let’s pretend for a second that, on Monday morning, your local public school system is going to call you up and ask you to substitute in a kindergarten class in the district.
Dave: They’re not going to call me.
Jen: They need two subs, and so you have a choice between two classes. The first class that they need a teacher in is Mrs. Smith’s class. Mrs. Smith doesn’t believe in rules. She just wants the kids to all know that they’re loved, and seen, and cared for; and so the kids don’t actually call her “Mrs. Smith”; they call her “Susan.” They spend their day just really focusing on that relational component; that’s one class that you could sub in.
Dave: Alright; I already know. [Laughter]
Jen: Or you could sub in Mrs. Jones’ class. Ms. Jones has some things posted on the board—things like: “We will talk, one at a time,” “We will keep our hands to ourselves,” “We will complete our work,”—things like that. Mrs. Jones is also a very nice person, but she does have classroom rules. Which class would you like to sub in?
Dave: No question.
Jen: That’s right; because what Mrs. Jones understands, that Mrs. Smith does not, is that rules are what facilitate relationship.
Ann: I would want a combination of the two.
Jen: Yes; that’s exactly right. You want them to live in tension with one another.
Jen: The healthiest parents are—not those, who are high-relationship/low-rules or high-rules/low-relationship—they are parents, who are high-rules/high-relationship. Obviously, we’re talking about the younger stages of parenting, where it’s so important for those good boundaries to be established.
We talk about having healthy boundaries all the time. I think, if we were better able to understand that—what a boundary is—is a rule; it’s a law that we’ve put in place that’s for the good and the well-being of a community.
Ann: I think that’s part of it, too: “Why did God give us the Law? Why did He give the Law to Moses?”
Jen: Because we are not saved into just a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The gospel message has been: “God wants a relationship with you, the individual.” That’s true; but He wants that relationship with you as an invitation, not just into a relationship with Him, but with the church/with others.
That’s why the great commandment is: “Love the Lord your God,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” [is the second] because you have neighbors. Even when you look at the giving of the Ten Commandments, God is giving them to this newly-formed nation so that they will know how to live at peace with one another.
Dave: So when Ann mentioned you said it has a bad PR problem, that is what?
Jen: All rules can do is crush us and make us feel guilty: that’s what they do.
Ann: And some would say, “And that’s why I don’t go to church, because the rules have crushed me; I fail, and I feel guilty.”
Jen: You should feel guilty when you break the rules; you shouldn’t stay there. Again, when you’re thinking about obeying God’s Law, not to earn His favor—but because you already have it—that’s when this all begins to shift. You may not be a parent, but you have a Parent.
You can remember your own upbringing experience. There were probably times in your relationship with your parents, where you did the right thing without being asked, because you knew it would make that parent so happy, not because you wanted to earn something, but because you knew you were loved and accepted. That is what obedience looks like in the life of the believer; but it is not a blind, unidentified obedience.
The call to be holy as God is holy is repeated over and over again in the Old Testament and also in the New. All of these Christians today—wandering around today, saying, “I just wish I knew God’s will for my life,”—I Thessalonians 4: “This is the will of God for your life, your sanctification.” And the Law is what shows us how to be holy as He is holy.
Ann: And I would say, too—Dave and I were walking last night, even talking about interviewing you today, and even going through the Ten Commandments—every one of those given were out of God’s love for us: He’s protecting us, and He knows what will fulfill us. And fulfilling us is what really is obedience. When we obey Him, there’s a sense of: “Yes, this is what I was made to do.”
Jen: That’s right. When we obey the Law, we are most fully human; because we were created to exist according to God’s Law—we transgressed it; now, we look at what was meant for our good, and we say, “You know what’s burdensome?—that.” But it’s the path of safety and flourishing.
Dave: In some ways, it’s tragic to think—and I think I could be guilty of this as well—is once you come to Christ, it’s almost New Testament theology: “I don’t need the Law anymore—it’s done; it’s over—I just need to follow Christ.” It’s just a lie; right?
Jen: Well, you look at the 54—depends on how you number them—54/59 “one anothers” of the New Testament. What all of those are—are expressions of the Law and how they play out in our relationships with each other—so the Law doesn’t stop being talked about in the New Testament, but we understand the Law’s role in light of the cross.
There are so many calls to obedience in the New Testament. That’s another fascinating thing to me, is how often, particularly in the Pauline epistles—I think this is actually a Bible literacy issue—because the Pauline epistles are some of the shortest books of the Bible, we have a lot of people in the church, who have spent an inordinate amount of time in the Pauline epistles in particular. They’re getting that emphasis on grace that you see there from Paul without a balancing of some of the other ways that grace and Law are talked about.
Not only that, but there’s been a heavy focus, I would argue, on the indicative section of those letters: “This is who you are in Christ…” “This is who you are…” “This is who…” “This is who…” But we all know you hit that turning point, where Paul then says, “And this is how you shall live…” And all of that imperative portion of those New Testament epistles is, in some form, a reiteration of God’s holy Law.
Dave: So as you sat down to look at the Ten Commandments and write this book, was there anything that struck you, like, “Oh! I’m surprised”?
Jen: Yes; first—maybe, this is not surprising—people don’t know them. When I teach on this at conferences, I’ll often say, “Okay, I’m going to ask a volunteer to come up here and recite the Ten Commandments in order.” Now, of course, there are some great homeschool kids, out there, who are like, “Oh, I’m going to nail this” [Laughter]; but most people feel that panic/that sinking dread, like “Oh, I’m supposed to know them all?” and certainly couldn’t give them to you in order.
And yet, the order really matters; they’re given in a particular order for a particular reason. I think the beauty of the order of the commandments is one of the things that really struck me, but also the timing of the giving of the commandments. God does not give them to Israel, while they’re still bound in Egypt; because Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.” Obviously, when Israel is serving the law of Pharaoh, they cannot serve the Law of God as they were created to do. So the Law is not given until they have been delivered out of their slavery to the Pharaohs and into the freedom that will now be bound, in good ways, by their new benevolent King.
Ann: I don’t think I’ve ever thought about they were given in order for a reason.
Ann: Let’s talk about that; let’s go to the first one.
Dave: Well, you go back to my little fun exercise—you go back to number one—and standing on the stage, looking out at a congregation, and you say, “Hey, if you’ve violated this, sit down”; I’m thinking, “The whole room will sit down on number one.”
Jen: —the whole place, yes. [Laughter]
Dave: And I will say that later; but in that moment, I’m not going to ruin it.
As I read the chapter on Law number one, help us understand Law number one; because I don’t think we understand it.
Jen: No, absolutely not. Well, when we don’t have the context for it, we think the Ten Commandments are only relevant insofar as they relate to us today. But we can’t possibly understand their significance unless we place them in their historical setting. Immediately before God says, “You will have no other gods before Me,” He reminds them of something critical—He says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt,”—He is pushing them to remember 50 days ago. He’s saying, “Fifty days ago, you saw ten plagues of death; today, you’re going to receive ten words of life.”
Ann: That makes you emotional.
Jen: Yes, it does!
Ann: Why does it?
Jen: I think because, again, it’s a vision of God, high and lifted up. He’s referencing back to the very thing that they will forget again, and again, and again; and He knows they will; right? He knows they will. Over and over in the Old Testament is the call to remember: “Do not forget,” “Remember,” “Do not forget,” all the way through the end of Deuteronomy you hear it. And then, you see them do exactly what He’s told them not to do.
And what are they going to forget? They are going to forget, not just that they are to have no other gods before Him, they are going to forget what they learned in Egypt; and that is, that there are no other gods. That first command is an invitation into reality. It is not simply a—“Hey, I’m a big deal; and you need to pay attention to Me,”—He has demonstrated for them that there are no other gods, and now they have a choice: “Will you live in that reality?”
That’s the reality that was presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden, and it’s presented, once again, to the children of Israel: “You can be faithful. You can walk forward, in obedience, as you were born and designed to do.” It starts with a reminder, and then there’s an invitation into reality: “That means that anything that you give worship to, that is not Me, is not worthy of your worship.”
Dave: —such as? Because again, that’s why I’m standing up there, going, “Oh, you don’t understand this.
Dave: “We would fall on our face!”
Jen: They/because people think—I say “they”; it’s been me, too—[Laughter]—there are probably a lot of years that I would have stood there, too; it’s like: “Yes, yes, yes, I worship God.”
And really, this is where Israel’s ongoing story becomes so instructive to us—because Israel actually does not stop giving worship to God—they just stop giving worship to God alone.
Ann: Oh, that’s big right there.
Jen: They start adding in these other things. God knows—He’s drawn them out of polytheistic Egypt; and now, they’re going into polytheistic Canaan—so He’s saying to them: “You’re different. You’re set apart; you worship one God. Keep that in your head,”— which they will not do. They’ll say: “Well, I’ve got and—fill in the blank—'We’re going to worship Baal,’ or ‘We’re going to worship Ashtaroth in addition to…’” The whole books of First and Second Kings and First and Second Chronicles: these guys tearing down the high places that had been set up or building the high places back.
This is what we still do—we say: “I need God and financial security,” “I need God and a face that never ages,” “I need God and happy children,”—whatever it is; it’s those fill in the blanks. Anytime we add something to our worship of God, our worship of God is no longer pure.
Ann: What is your temptation to add to—that you’re worshipping something other than—you’re worshipping God.
Dave: You’re talking to Jen Wilkins.
Jen: Mine?—you want mine?
Dave: I know what Ann’s is, and she knows what mine is.
Jen: Oh, yes.
Ann: You do know what mine is?
What’s yours, Jen?
Jen: It’s my kids, 100 percent. I’ll tell them—we’ll be sitting around, talking about something that’s going on in their lives, and I’ll go, “Hey, guys, here’s the thing. I don’t want you to have any difficulty or pain; so everybody good with that?”—and they all laugh. But it’s true; I know/I know, rationally, life is full of those things; and those things are what grow us.
Ann: People listen to that, and think, “But that’s a good thing; our kids are so important.” And that’s mine, too; because I love them; I love them.
Jen: I think it’s just that you are worshiping a version of the good life that is dependent on your children being happy, and that is just not a guarantee. And as we pointed out, it’s not even good for our children. Adversity is something that teaches us dependence on God, even though none of us invites it or asks for it. And it’s saying: “I don’t want to walk by faith; I want to walk by sight. I want to look at a good thing and go, ‘Yes, the Lord is good to me in this thing that I can see,’ instead of saying, ‘I can’t see it, and I still believe the Lord is good.’”
Ann: And how do you know if your kids are in front of God? —or you’re worshiping God, but they are right alongside Him? How do you know that? How does a woman know, “Ooh, ooh, they’re in the wrong place”?
Jen: I think you can tell by what you’re worrying about.
Ann: That’s what I was going to say,—
Jen: Don’t you think?
Ann: —"What you’re thinking about.” I ask women, sometimes, “What do you worry about the most? What continually goes, back and forth, in your mind?” Sometimes, that’s a good clue.
Jen: Well, and you know, it ties in with this discussion about the Law; because when you think about the opening lines of Psalm 1, it says that the righteous man: “His delight is in the Law of the Lord and on it he meditates day and night.” So when I start to think about: “What am I making meditation on?” usually that’s where you can find the thing that’s drawing your worship away.
Ann: What’s yours, Dave?
Dave: I’m sitting here, thinking, “I think for men,”—of course, you can’t generalize; everybody’s different—"but I would guess many men would say what I would say, and it’s more success/money. I don’t lay in bed and worry about my boys; I think, ‘Adversity is good. I hope they have to go through something hard today to develop character’— [Laughter]—to a point. But I do think about a bank account; I think about retirement; I think about bills; I think about house, the ministry, business; whatever you’re doing or going.”
Ann: —which is so funny, because I’m like: “God’s got that; He’s fine with that.” But I can sit there, and stay wide awake at 3:00 in the morning, worrying about one of my kids.
Dave: So here’s what I would ask, is: “If we don’t put something else in front of God, and He really is—
Ann: —He reigns first.
Dave: —"He is first; we worship Him alone—does that mean no worry?—our meditation is just on Him.”
Jen: Oh, absolutely not. And it also doesn’t mean that you don’t ever think about your kids, or you think about work; right? But it means that your job or your family are ways to express your love for God or worship for God, instead of things that you love right next to God.
Jen: I hate, honestly, when, in Christian circles, we tell women: “Don’t make your child an idol. You care too much about your kids.” I’m like, “Well, thanks; that’s super helpful. How am I supposed to care less about my children?”; right?
Ann: “Thanks a lot”; exactly.
Jen: There is a way to feel all of that depth of emotion for your children, that is honoring to the Lord, and that’s what we want. We want to serve our families, or our jobs, or our communities, or whatever our thing is that is our “passion,”—that word we like to use so much—we want to do it as an expression of our love for God—but not as a terminus—it should be a conduit.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Jen Wilkin on FamilyLife Today. Stick around; Ann has a great question you can ask at your dinner table tonight to spark some conversation, based on what we’ve heard today; that’s in just a second.
But first, Jen has written a book called Ten Words to Live By: Delighting in and Doing What God Commands. We don’t want to live our lives in begrudging submission to God’s commands but instead: “Delight in the Law of the Lord”; because as Psalm 19 says, “It revives the soul.”
I genuinely believe that, and that’s one of the reasons why I love being on staff with FamilyLife. We authentically believe that following God’s Word and God’s ways revive the soul. And when you partner with us, you’re literally helping souls come alive again. Would you consider partnering with us, at FamilyLife, to see the Law of the Lord advance in this world and revive marriages and families everywhere?
When you do, we’d love to send you a copy of Jen’s book; again, it’s called Ten Words to Live By. It’s our way of saying, “Thank you,” to you when you partner, financially, today with us. You can give, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; again, that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Okay, here’s Ann with a question you can ask at the dinner table tonight, or to your spouse, or just ask yourself.
Ann: I think it’d be interesting to even ask: “What is the source of my joy and happiness right now in my life? What am I thinking about or worrying about more often than not?” That’d be an interesting conversation: “What’s your temptation to put before God?” or “What do you worry about, or mull about, or—
Dave: —"meditate on?”
Ann: —“meditate on?”
Shelby: Let’s face it: the Law of God can feel harsh, but what if that’s not what the Law is meant to do? What if it’s actually meant to draw us closer to God? Tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Jen Wilkin joins Dave and Ann to talk about some misconceptions we have on God’s Word; that’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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