In the previous question (Q.2) we were told that there are three (3) things that we need to know in order to live and die in the joy of our comfort in Christ. (Those three things essentially form the outline or structure of the Heidelberg Catechism.) The first of these things that we must know is the greatness of our sin and misery.
The catechism’s treatment of the subject of our sin and misery is found in Q.3-11. This is easily the shortest of the three sections in the catechism. In his book, The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin Deyoung writes,
“Compared with the amount of time spent on other topics, the Heidelberg Catechism does not spend a lot of time on human depravity. The grace section of the catechism [Q.12-85] covers twenty-seven Lord’s days and seventy-four Questions and Answers. The gratitude section [Q.86-129] is only a little shorter, covering twenty-one Lord’s days and forty-four Questions and Answers. The guilt section [Q.3-11] is by far the shortest with only three Lord’s days and nine Questions and Answers. The authors of the Catechism wanted Heidelberg to be an instrument of comfort, not condemnation.” (p.25)
But don’t let the brevity of this section fool you. Without a right understanding of the greatness of our sin and misery we can never really understand the greatness of God’s grace in the gospel of Christ.
In his 2-volume set of lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism, Guilt, Grace and Gratitude, George W. Bethune writes,
“To understand and appreciate the salvation by Christ, it is necessary that we should know our misery, its source, its extent, and our utter dependence upon divine grace through Christ for pardon, favor, a new life, and immortal happiness.” (p.31-32)
If we don’t first understand the bad news of our sin and misery outside of Christ, how will we ever rightly appreciate just how good the good news of Christ really is? That is why the catechism begins where it does, with a brief explanation of our sin and misery.
The questions for Lord’s day #2 (Questions 3-5) of the Heidelberg Catechism begin to unfold for us what the Bible teaches about the greatness of our sin and misery outside of Christ.
The Necessity of the Law of God
The first thing that the catechism teaches us in this section is the necessity of the law of God in revealing our sin and misery to us. It says,
Q.3. How do you come to know your misery? A. The law of God tells me.
The Word of God clearly teaches us that it is the law of God that reveals our sin and misery to us. In Romans 3:19-20 the Apostle Paul writes,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (ESV)
“Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (v.20). We can only truly perceive the depth of our sin and misery in light of the law of God. It is there that we find the true standard of righteousness by which sinners must be judged.
And in making us aware of our sin and misery, the law of God then also reveals our need for the Savior. Theologians often refer to this as the pedagogical use of God’s law – the use wherein the law drives us to Christ for salvation from our sins.
The Requirements of the Law of God – Love for God and Neighbor
The next thing that the Heidelberg Catechism does is sum up what the law of God requires of us:
Q.4. What does God’s law require of us? A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
It is interesting that Ursinus (the author) chose this passage from Matthew’s Gospel rather than the text of the ten commandments (i.e. Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21) in order to show us the requirements of God’s law. The catechism actually includes a somewhat lengthy exposition of the ten commandments in the very last section (the gratitude section). And so we see that not only does the law of God show us our sins and so drive us to Christ for salvation from our sins, but it also shows us how we are to live and show our gratitude to God after we come to Christ by faith for salvation!
This summary of the law of God found in the great commandment shows us the futility of mere morality, because it shows us the true nature of the kind of obedience that God requires of us, as well as the only right motive of such obedience.
Many people might fool themselves into thinking that they have obeyed God’s commandments simply because they have not outwardly committed the acts of murder or of adultery. But the Lord Jesus shows us in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) and in the great commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) that true obedience must extend to the heart, and must also and come from a heart of love to God and our neighbor.
The Depravity and Inability of Man
Not only does the law of God reveal our sin and misery to us, but it also shows us just how far we fall short of obedience to God. Not only do we not love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, but we actually have a marked tendency to do the opposite! In Q.5 we see not just our sin and guilt, but our depravity outside of Christ as well:
Q.5. Can you live up to all this perfectly? A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor
The problem is not with the law (Romans 7:12), but rather with us. We are utterly unable (and unwilling) to keep it. And not only do we fail to keep it, but we actually “have a natural tendency” to do the very opposite of what the law requires – we not only fail to love God and love our neighbor, but we actually tend to hate God and hate our neighbor!
In Ephesians 2:1-3 the Apostle Paul puts it this way:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (ESV)
Here we see the utter helplessness and hopelessness of our condition outside of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And because of this, we also can begin to see a better glimpse of the greatness of the salvation that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the questions and answers for the following Lord’s day (Q.6-8) the catechism addresses the topic that most naturally follows upon these things – how did mankind come to be in this condition of sin and misery? It doesn’t take long to see the logical progression of thought in the way the Heidelberg lays out its case for the gospel of Christ.