Preaching through the Ten Commandments does not seem to be nearly as common in Reformed churches today as it has been in years and generations past. Perhaps some mistakenly believe that to do so in some way implies or lends itself to a kind of legalism of sorts. To be sure, there are legalistic ways of preaching God’s law, but this should in no way prevent us from preaching and teaching the Ten Commandments in our churches in a godly and edifying way.
Q/A 115 marks the end of the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments (which consists of Q/A 92-115), and it addresses this very topic, saying:
Q.115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.
This question logically builds upon the previous two (2) questions, where we are taught that the tenth commandment (“Thou shalt not covet” – Exodus 20:17) requires of us that we obey all of God’s commandments from the heart (Q/A 113), and reveals to us that in this life “even the holiest of men” cannot perfectly keep God’s commandments, but “have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q/A 114).
Here in Q/A 115 the writer of the catechism anticipates a possible objection about the usefulness and necessity of the preaching of God’s commandments in the life of the Christian. If even the holiest of men in this life only have a “small beginning” of the obedience and holiness that is required of them, then what is the use of preaching and teaching the commandments so strictly? Not only that, but why should the catechism itself spend so much time on the subject (no less than 24 questions over a span of 11 Lord’s Days)?
Given the fact the the Heidelberg Catechism itself was intended to be used as, among other things, a preaching guide in the churches, and has been preached as such in Reformed churches all over the world for hundreds of years since it was first published, you might say that Q/A 115 at least in part serves an apologetic purpose of sorts, in that it defends or at least gives us the rationale behind including such a lengthy exposition of the ten commandments in the course of its instruction.
Interestingly, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism itself) goes into great detail answering the arguments or objections of “the Antinomians, Libertines, and other profane heretics of a similar cast, who affirm that the law is not to be taught in the church of Christ.” This almost certainly shows that he had their arguments in view when he composed Q/A 115.
Ursinus goes so far as to state and refute no less than 11 (!) common objections that such heretics made against the strict preaching and teaching of God’s law. Some of these very same arguments are raised in one form or another by modern antinomians of various kinds in our own day as well.
For example, he points out that some object to the strict preaching of God’s commandments on the basis that we are unable in this life to perfectly keep or obey them. Ursinus essentially answers this objection in his commentary by restating the answer to question #115. He also points out that “the law may, to a certain extent, be kept by the regenerate” (p.615). In other words, the fact that we cannot perfectly obey God’s law in this life does not mean that we cannot sincerely obey it at all.
Another common objection (both in Ursinus’s day as well as our own) is based upon a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in Romans 6:14, where he says that we as believers are “not under law but under grace.” Ursinus writes,
“This, however, is to misunderstand the words of the Apostle; for the expression, Not to be under the law, does not mean, that we are not to yield obedience to the law, but that we are freed from the curse and constraint of the law; . . . .” (p.617)
The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise states:
“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5)
The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ does not in any way “dissolve” or do away with our obligation to obey God’s law, but rather does “much strengthen this obligation.”
So why is it necessary that the commandments of God be so strictly preached? Q/A 115 offers us at least two reasons. “First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” In other words, a thorough familiarity with the law of God and the hearing of God’s commandments being “strictly preached” ought to help us to understand more and more just how sinful we still are in this life. And this is something that we will need to learn “all our lifetime.” As Paul says in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (ESV)
This, of course, is not an end in and of itself, but rather serves the purpose of making us as believers to “become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” It should safeguard us from any delusions of perfectionism or self-righteousness, and cause us to more earnestly seek God’s mercy in forgiving our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). As Paul says in Philippians 3:8–9,
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (ESV)
Not only that, but the strict preaching of the ten commandments is also for the purpose “likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.”
In other words, it should lead us more and more to grasp our need for the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, and to pray for His work in us, in order that we might be more conformed to the image of Christ and walk in newness of life according to the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).
And so herein lies the pastoral wisdom of including within the catechism such a lengthy section dealing with the Ten Commandments, and why God’s commandments still ought to be strictly preached in our churches. These things are needful for every believer, for God uses the preaching of His commandments (as He does all of Scripture) as an instrument of our sanctification in Christ, by the working of His Holy Spirit within us.