“What do you need in order to know to live and to die in the joy of the comfort that you belong to Jesus?” The catechism asked this in q&a 2. Its answer was: “First, how great my sins and misery are.” Only if we know how miserable we would be without Jesus, can we truly appreciate how wonderful it is that he saves us.
That is why Lord’s Days 2-4 focus on what is wrong with us, on our sins and the resulting misery. This may seem a little depressing. Do we really have to feel bad about ourselves? But the catechism is right: the glory and grace of Jesus our Saviour shine all the more if we recognize the darkness from which he rescues us.
So Lord’s Day 2 asks: From where do you know your sins and misery? The answer, famously the shortest answer in the whole catechism, is: From the law of God. If you want to understand how much Jesus has done for you, how much has forgiven you, from how much misery he has rescued you, then study the law.
The law of love.
1. The requirement of the law
2. Our keeping of the law
3. God’s purpose for the law
The requirement of the law
What is God’s law? Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind are the Ten Commandments. God himself spoke these words from the mountain to his people Israel, and wrote them on stone tablets. These Ten Commandments give general, practical moral guidelines. Don’t serve other gods, don’t murder, don’t steal, and so on.
But the word “law” often has a broader meaning in the Bible. The Hebrew word, torah, simply means “instruction”. Anything that the Lord teaches us, is his “law”; especially, what he teaches us about his will for our lives. The Ten Commandments summarize an important part of that will, but they are not the entire law. They are not even the heart of the matter.
What is the heart of the matter? What are the most basic principles that God teaches us? Jesus was asked that question: “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus gave a famous answer (Mat. 22:37-40), which the Catechism quotes in q&a 4.
You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
According to Jesus, there are two equally important principles behind all of God’s instruction to us. Both principles are about love: loving your God, and loving your neighbour.
Jesus was not the first to teach this. Moses had already proclaimed the importance of love to God’s people; our Lord Jesus merely quotes Moses. The first quote comes from Deuteronomy 6; after Moses had reminded the Israelites of the Ten Commandments, he continued by saying:
Hear, o Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.
Impress them on your children.
Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road,
when you lie down and when you get up.
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your forehead.
Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
In other words, follow the instructions of the Lord with all that we are, from the core of our being. Let his teaching be the pattern of our lives. His instructions must permeate our home life, our working life, the education of our children, and the life of our whole community. Our thinking, speaking, and doing should all be done for him, out of love and respect for him.
Jesus’ second answer comes from Leviticus 19. Here, the Lord gave the Israelites more detailed instructions about dealing with other people. Don’t abuse them but treat them fairly, with respect and decency. In particular,
Do not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge of bear a grudge against any among your people,
but love your neighbour as yourself—— I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
Again, it is not just about what we physically do to other people, but about our whole attitude toward them. God wants our interactions with others to be driven by love and respect, care and consideration.
According to Jesus, the heart of God’s law is love; not just a feeling, but love that shapes our thoughts, attitudes, words, and deeds. When Jesus formed a new community around him of disciples—his church—he told them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) A new command, but at the same time an old command, because this was always the point of God’s law; this has always been God’s will for our lives.What does God’s law require of us? If we actively love the Lord and show love to others, we are doing what he made us for. But if we don’t, we fail— and that is how from this law of love, we know our sins and misery.
Our keeping of the law
Our problem is that we do not keep the law of love. We easily slip into an attitude of not loving God, of not caring for others. Sometimes that attitude grows into full-fledged hatred, in our thoughts and then in our deeds.
The catechism says, in q&a 5: No, I cannot keep all this perfectly.
This is true for all of us, for every human being who lives on earth. Sure, some of us violate the commandments more blatantly than others. Some people openly hate God and abuse other people, while others seem to be quite decent. But nobody has the perfect love, wisdom, and motivation that you need to fulfill God’s law completely.
After the Flood, when Noah and his family had left the ark to make a fresh start of mankind on earth, God said: “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8:21). Psalm 14 describes how the LORD looks down from heaven to see if there is any truly righteous person; his conclusion:
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (Psalm 14:3)
When Jesus was preaching, a man came to him and asked: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus first pointed him to the Ten Commandments. “All these I have kept from my youth,” said the man. Then Jesus pushed deeper. “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Here Jesus showed how radical it is to perfectly love God and others. The man could not do it. The disciples said in exasperation: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus agreed: “It is impossible with man.” (Luke 18:18-27) It is impossible for people to fulfill the requirement of perfect love.
The catechism wants us to embrace that truth personally. This is not about other people, and how they always seem to disappoint. That is about you; this is about me. Can you keep all this perfectly? No! On my own, I am a failure. On my own, I cannot live the life for which I was created. On my own, I have no true happiness and comfort. That is how I know that I need a Saviour.
The catechism continues by saying: I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour. My failure to keep the law of love is not a random fact. It is something ingrained in me. There is a constant inclination, a constant push deep inside me to do the opposite of what God tells me to do. My disrespect for God and my selfishness in dealing with others is a natural pattern for me. The catechism even uses the word “hate”. A strong word; but we must recognize that this is where our inclinations lead us. If we give in to what comes to us naturally, we will not merely lack love, but slide ever further in the opposite direction, in the direction of hatred.
We summarize this by saying that we have a sinful, corrupt, or depraved nature. The catechism explores this more in q&a 7 and 8. For now, it is enough for each of us to make an honest assessment of our life in the light of the law of love. We have never perfectly loved God and others. Our hearts are quick to hate. If we try harder, there may be some improvement, but we will never reach perfection.
Can you keep all this perfectly? No, I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour.
God’s purpose for the law
Isn’t this a depressing message? People often think of us, Reformed believers, as stern and dour people, with our pessimistic view of humanity. But the goal is not to make us depressed. The law is not meant to beat us down.
The law is meant to show us our weakness, so that we stop trying to save ourselves. It shows us accurately what we are like, so that we look for someone better. The law must drive us to Jesus Christ. The Reformed form for baptism says it beautifully: “[The water] signifies the impurity of our souls, so that we may detest ourselves, humble ourselves before God, and seek our cleansing and salvation outside of ourselves.”
This is not just a focus of Reformed churches. The Bible shows us that this is the purpose of the law. The apostle Paul wrote much about this in his letter to the Romans. For instance:
By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight,
since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:20)
This verse was the inspiration for the question of the catechism: From where do you know your sins? From the law of God.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he explains:
If a law had been given that could give life,
then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.
so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ
might be given to those who believe. […]
The law was our guardian until Christ came,
in order that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal. 3:21-23)
From this passage we learn, first of all, that we should not expect to become right with God by keeping the law. The law cannot give us life. We cannot make God happy with us by trying to be super-obedient. We cannot earn the glory of heaven by our good behaviour.
Second, the law was always meant to bring us to Jesus Christ. The word “guardian” in Galatians 3 refers to a so-called “pedagogue”, a slave who took care of children until they were old enough to make their own decisions. As a guardian, the law is temporary and will be in effect until we find new life in Jesus.
Ultimately, the law of God is all about Jesus Christ. What the law says in words, Jesus showed and lived out in person. He showed what it means to truly love God and others. You could say that he is the love of God. He is, as Paul writes, “the end (purpose) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Rom. 10:4)
Our only comfort is that we belong to Jesus Christ. The law of God shows us why this is the case. It exposes us as miserable sinners; because we cannot live the life of perfect love for which God has made us.
That is how we get to know our sins and misery. How do you respond to that? Do you claim that it is not as bad as all that? Do you think that God can be happy with a little less than perfection? Do you believe that just trying harder will get you there?
The only right response to the law is to recognize your sins and misery, and your inability to earn your own salvation. So that you get to the point where you pray: “Have mercy on me, miserable sinner that I am!” Then you will understand how wonderful it is, that you may belong to your faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who has put an end to the law by fully paying for all your sins.
- What do we mean by the “law” of God?
- What is the core principle of God’s law?
- Quote two verses, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, that teach nobody keeps the law perfectly.
- What does it mean that we are “inclined by nature” to hate God and neighbour?
- What is the purpose of the law?
- In what way is the law of God like a mirror?
- Can you love God in your heart, without showing it in your actions?
- “Love the Lord your God;” “love your neighbour as yourself.” Which of these is the most important commandment?
- Are all actions of unbelievers based on hatred of God and other people?
- Can a believer ever keep God’s law perfectly?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Genesis 8:20-9:1. When Noah left the ark, what observation did God make about mankind? How does this passage highlight God’s grace?|
|Tuesday||Ephesians 2:1-10. How does Paul characterize our life before we believed (v. 1-3)? What role do good works have (v. 10)?|
|Wednesday||Deuteronomy 6. In what practical ways do we show true love to God, according to this chapter?|
|Thursday||Psalm 14. What sins do the evildoers especially commit, according to this psalm?|
|Friday||Romans 3:21-31. What “distinction” (v. 22) might Paul’s readers have in mind?|
|Saturday||Galatians 3:10-14. In what way is the law the opposite of faith?|