You probably wouldn't be surprised by the fact I cringe when I hear the catchphrase "keep the commandments" (don't worry; I still sing along in Church when the organ plays Hymn No. 303).
"But Tim!" someone says. "Are you spiritually insane? How can you say that? Didn't Christ tell us to keep the commandments?"
No, no He didn't.
Look at what Jesus said:
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
See the difference? Jesus doesn't want us to keep THE commandments; He told us to "keep MY commandments."
Whomever we love, we obey. If we love the Church, then by all means, keep the (their) commandments; but if we love God, then we will keep His.
He that hath MY commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
Perhaps the reason sightings of Christ are as rare as hen's teeth is because we're keeping THE commandments instead of keeping HIS commandments ― you know, listening to Him as opposed to what our parents, leaders, and religious traditions tell us.
Jesus himself was a good example of following the words that came directly to Him from God and not from man:
I love the Father; and as the Father gave ME commandment, even so I do.
And so when it comes to "keep the commandments," I can't help but channel my inner Dr. Seuss:
I do not like that little phrase or the way we give it praise. I do not like it here or there, It is not part of the Lord's Prayer. I do not like it when we preach man's law is something not to breach.
"Vague and Ambiguous"
The problem with the telling others to "keep the commandments" is that nobody knows what it means. Those three words are ambiguous; they're undefined.
What commandments are we referring to? Whose commandments? I think the phrase has become short-hand for "follow the prophet." But that is no help at all, either. Which prophet?
To help, let's turn to the Book of First John.
Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.
(1 John 3:21)
Question: Does our doctrinal emphasis on keeping the commandments increase or decrease our confidence?
How confident are you feeling today? How clear is our conscience?
And how can our conscience be clear if there are so many commandments flying around we can't even keep track of them all ― let alone keep them!
It seems many of us are a bit shy in God's presence: somewhere between "Mountains-fall-on-me-please" and "Let me come boldly to thy throne".
If confidence came from keeping the commandments, then the answer itself becomes another problem. Because who among us keeps all the commandments?
Sin is the transgression of the law. [remember this: sin = breaking the law] Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: [Really, why not? Are they perfect?] [For] he that committeth sin is of the devil. [Umm, sending greeting cards on Father's Day just got awkward]
(1 John 3:4, 6-7)
Are you sinless?
Keep Your Eye Single to the Glory of the Commandments
When I hear someone say, "Keep the commandments," I immediately begin to inventory my sins. "Let's see, I'm doing well with a-b-c at the moment, but I really need to work on x-y-z."
Do you see what happened there?
Where was my attention drawn? Upon what did my eyes focus? Not on God, no: but on the commandments.
In this way, my (1) obedience to the commandments substituted itself for (2) my relationship with God. They became interchangable.
How anemic is our spiritual life if we base it more on our relationship with righteous behavior than with our Righteous Father?
I don't know about you, but I am a sinner; where does that leave me?
If "sinlessness" were the standard, what's to become of someone like me who eats too much fried chicken like a glutton, who has the meat-sweats and stinks of telestial B.O.?
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.
(1 John 3:9)
Does this mean if we sin we haven't been "born of God"? Close the curtains; stop the music; the show is over. Because we all sin.
Shall we become discouraged? Do we cast away our confidence?
Whenever someone gets on their "Just-keep-the-commandments-and-stop-sinning" High Horse (as if they were a jockey riding a pony named 'Can U See My Phat Pharisaical Gluteus Maximus From Over There?'), I like to quote the following verse to them:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
(1 John 1:8)
Huh; it's a catch 22, isn't it? If we claim to be sinless, we're deceived ― but we're told to be sinless!
Which is it?
Instead of 'Keeping the commandments' Try This
What a mess we've made of repentance. We mock God when we heckle each other.
There's a big difference between "keeping the commandments" [plural] and "keeping THE commandment" [singular].
And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep HIS commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.
(1 John 3:21)
The next verse, I think, holds the key to this whole matter:
And THIS is HIS commandment, [singular; finally we're getting somewhere] That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another [well, that was two things, but let's focus on the "love"] as he gave us commandment.
(1 John 3:22)
What is THE (only true and living) Commandment? To love. To love God and our neighbor.
What if "sinlessness" was nothing more or less than living in a dynamic state of charity?
How better to describe the constant cleansing of sanctification than to be awash in the river of God's unending, pure love, sharing it with each other?
Is this how we retain a remission of our sins? Not by being sinless, but loving? Because if we want a clear conscience, we need look no further than King Benjamin's people:
They were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience.
So how did all these sinners (reprobates) get there? Why were their hearts purified?
[Ye] have tasted of his love and received a remission of your sins . . . [and are] filled with the love of God.
(Mosiah 4:11-12) Here's an experiment: What if we took the thousands of commandments [plural] everyone talks about (and fails to keep) and set them aside for a moment, and in their place, we just love God and each other? You know, like Christ told us to (Matt. 22:36-40)?
Instead of quibbling over coffee and hemlines.
All this underscores the point that:
The law does not change hearts; the law does not create a Zion-people.