“A Small Beginning” of Obedience (The Heidelberg Catechism on the 10th Commandment)

Heidelberg 2Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 113-115 deals with the 10th commandment (“You shall not covet” – Exodus 20:17). Here the catechism offers a number of important lessons that we should learn from this commandment.

Q.113. What does the tenth commandment require of us? A. That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.

The first lesson that the 10th commandment teaches us is a right understanding of the true aim and extent of the law of God – that it is spiritual in nature, and must be obeyed inwardly and from the heart, as well as outwardly in the body. As Thomas Watson puts it, “The laws of men take hold of actions, but the law of God goes further, it forbids not only actions, but desires.” (The Ten Commandments, p.181)

In Romans 7:7, Paul writes:

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”” (ESV)

The law of God here reveals to us the true depth and extent of our sin, guilt, and depravity. Like the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31), we might deceive ourselves into thinking that we have obeyed God’s law simply because we have not lived an outwardly scandalous life; but the 10th commandment pulls us up short and shows us how all of us have broken all of God’s commandments inwardly.

True obedience must be genuine and from the heart, or it is not really true obedience at all. As Q/A 113 tells us, the 10th commandment means that we must hate sin and love righteousness. That is a tall order. The standard is perfection.

What about believers in Christ? Are we able to perfectly obey God’s commandments after our conversion? No. Q/A 114 addresses this very question as follows:

Q.114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?A. No, but even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

Not only before conversion (when we are dead in our trespasses and sins – Ephesians 2:1), but even after conversion as well (after we are born again by the Spirit of God and freed from slavery to sin – John 3:3; Romans 6:14), believers are unable to perfectly keep God’s commandments. Simply put, the Bible does not teach perfectionism.

In fact, as the Heidelberg so memorably puts it here, “even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience” (!). How humble ought even the godliest of Christians to be, knowing that they “have only a small beginning of this obedience” in this present life! Even the very holiest among us cannot claim to be even close to perfection in this life.

And yet we must make that our sincere goal. Q/A 114 makes this clear when it adds, “yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” There is a big difference between a “small beginning” and no beginning at all. As Ursinus himself (the principle author of the catechism) states in his commentary on Q/A 114, “There is, however, a great difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate when they sin.”

We cannot use our inability to keep God’s commandments perfectly as an excuse for a lack of desire and effort to do so sincerely, however imperfectly. As Paul himself says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12, ESV)

For the believer in Christ, God’s law is not to be viewed as a merit badge or a burden to bear. As John tells us, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3, ESV)

Our sanctification in this life is every bit as much a part of our salvation that is ours only by the grace of God in Christ as is our justification, adoption, and glorification. In fact, sanctification in this life and glory in the next are very closely-related. Thomas Watson puts it well:

Sanctification and glory differ only in degree: sanctification is glory in the seed, and glory is sanctification in the flower. Holiness is the quintessence of happiness.” (A Body of Divinity, p.242)

So sanctification, the ongoing work of God’s grace in our lives whereby we are “enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 35) is the beginnings of the glory that we will finally and fully enjoy in heaven one day.

When seen in that light, the effort expended on our part in dying to sin and living unto righteousness in this life can be seen not as a burden to bear, but as a blessing to enjoy, and a goal for which to pursue. It is but a foretaste of the perfect holiness and happiness that will be ours to enjoy forever in heaven with the Lord Jesus Christ.

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