What is the nature and purpose of God's Ten Commandments?
Many sincere religious people lament, "Oh, I wish I could live up to the Ten Commandments, but I know I can't." In their minds, keeping God's commandments is an unattainable goal. Underlying this perception is a major misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of God's Ten Commandments.
These commandments can be obeyed, at least in the outward letter of the law, by ordinary people even if they have not yet received God's Holy Spirit. For example, any human being is capable of not worshipping an idol, treating parents with respect, not murdering another person, not committing adultery or not stealing what belongs to someone else.
This is the level of obedience that God expected from ancient Israel and He now expects in repentance even before one is baptized and receives the Holy Spirit.
A higher level of righteousness
But from the beginning, God desired more from human beings. He is more interested in what comes out of the heart and whether what is in the heart is enthusiastically demonstrated by one's actions. It is in the heart and mind that He wants to write the full intent and meaning of His laws.
Jesus Christ addressed this in a parable about a servant who does only what his master demands (Luke:17:7-8). Jesus posed this question to His disciples: "Does he [the master] thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (verses 9-10).
Jesus pointed out that there is a higher level of righteousness that goes beyond the limited written demands of the Ten Commandments—a spirit or spiritual intent of the law that goes beyond the mere letter of the law (2 Corinthians:3:5-6).
Jesus summarized that standard: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew:22:37-40). Those two great commandments summarize the ultimate righteousness that God is creating in His children.
That level of love for God and our fellow human beings exceeds what any person is capable of having and expressing fully without the divine help that God makes available to us through the power of His Holy Spirit. It is a level of love that is in direct opposition to the selfish tendencies of our fleshly nature ( James:1:13-15; 4:1-3).
To receive the Holy Spirit, each of us must first repent of transgressing the Ten Commandments of God, which we should have been striving to obey already.
Basic steps to real repentance
So what are some of the basic steps to that real repentance that God requires before He will give us His Spirit?
First, we must acknowledge that God's commandments are spiritual in nature (Romans:7:14) as well as being holy, just and good (verse 12).
We must recognize also that God will not establish an eternal relationship with one who willfully chooses to continue transgressing His law (Isaiah:59:1-2). We need to recognize and acknowledge that His laws are wonderful and endure forever ( Psalm:119:129, 160). So the first act of repentance is to willingly choose to obey God's commandments as the only acceptable foundation for a right relationship with Him and Jesus Christ (Matthew:19:16-19; Luke:6:46).
Accepting Jesus Christ's sacrifice as payment for our past sins through baptism so that we may receive the Holy Spirit is the next major step. "Now . . . they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts:2:37-38).
When this happens—with genuine spiritual understanding and sincerity—a whole new level of righteous development begins. This is the kind of righteousness that God wants us to strive to develop with the help He makes available through His Spirit.
As Paul expressed it: "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:12-15).
In this way God raises the relationship we have with Him through Jesus Christ from obedience to just the letter of His law to a deep, selfless love for Him and His way of life and our fellow human beings. The history of mankind makes it clear that this level of righteousness has never and can never be attained by human effort alone.
But if we repent of our selfish ways that lead us into sin and surrender our lives unconditionally to our heavenly Father, we can accept Christ's sacrifice for our sins and receive forgiveness. God then promises that we "may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires" (2 Peter:1:4, NIV).