Thou Shalt Not . . .
God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized
The First Commandment
Many, if not all, of us have had the experience of our computer or TV not working quite right. There could be any number of problems that need addressing, but if you call a tech-line for help the first question they ask is, “Have you tried turning it off and back on?” More often than not, simply resetting the system will unravel whatever technological tangle was bogging down the device. It’s a simple principle: If things aren’t right at startup, then nothing will work right. Or looked at from another angle: Correcting a problem at startup will solve a whole host of other problems down the line.
In many ways, the same principle is behind the First Commandment. Having a healthy understanding of it will lead to a healthy understanding of those that follow, while problems with those that follow can often be solved by reflecting on the first one. It’s not by mere happenstance that it comes first; rather, it serves as the foundation for what follows.
It is helpful to remember at this point that the Law is a gift to God’s children, not a curse. Our problem is not with the Law, but with our sin which makes us incapable of keeping it. Thus, when Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need,” he was emphasizing that the point of the Commandment is not that God is vying to be the alpha dog in the divine pack or that these words are the slogan of one campaigning to be our choice from among the buffet line of available deities. Rather, the point is that there is no other option, for there is no other God.
Whether or not we are willing to admit it, the truth remains that there is no God but the True God. To look for help from somewhere else is foolishness, for there is no other help available. We might understand this commandment as simply, “Let God be God.” He is the creator, we are the creatures. He is the redeemer, we are the redeemed. He is the provider, we are those being provided for. The list multiplies itself, but the point is the same: the first and most fundamental instruction God gives his people through the Law is that because he alone is God, life works best when we treat him as such.
It is also significant that the first commandment follows closely on the heels of God’s reminder to Israel that he is the one who delivered them out of slavery in Egypt [Exodus 20:2-3]. This is important because it emphasizes to Israel, and to us, not only that God alone is God, but what manner of God he is. He is the delivering, redeeming God; we are the delivered, redeemed people. If the commandment were rewritten for today, it might read, “I am the Lord your God who took on human flesh in the man Jesus to live, suffer, and die as your substitute. I’ve proven my love for you. Let me alone be God to you.”
The heart of the First Commandment is living in a right relationship with God. The whole Law is a reflection of the people God created us to be and the relationships he created us to have. While the effects of this can certainly be seen in the relationships we have with the people around us as well as with creation itself, it all begins with our relationship to God our Savior. If we do not live in the reality that we are sinners and God is our Savior, noting else in our lives will work quite right. It may work well enough to get by, but it cannot measure up to the peace that passes understanding given to the Lord’s redeemed people. In such a situation, we need to “reboot the system” by confessing our sin and rejoicing in God our Savior.
Thus, the First Commandment is the fountain from which flow all other commandments. When we allow God to be God, our use of his name will be right, our worship will be right, our relationships with the people around us will be right. In the words of Luther, “If the heart is right with God and we keep this commandment, all the rest will follow on their own” [Large Catechism].