The Law is not the Gospel

Question 4: What does the law of God require of us?

Answer: Christ teaches us in sum, Matthew 22, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Great confusion and spiritual distress will arise in a Christian’s life if the law and the gospel are not distinguished from one another.  The law teaches men and women of God’s demands for moral uprightness (Right now, I am speaking of “law” as God’s unchanging moral standard, not as the covenant that came down at Sinai.).  In short, the law commands perfect love – love for God and neighbor.  This love is written upon our hearts (Rom. 2:13-15) and must be fulfilled personally, perpetually, and perfectly.  To obtain a fuller sense of the law’s demands, one may turn to the Ten Commandments, which the catechism explains later on, or to the various commands in the Old and New Testament that call people to live an upright life.

Just think about the implications of this distinction. If the law relates to God just requirements, it does not speak of His grace.  Therefore, it does not inform us of the accomplishments of Jesus Christ and His gracious gifts of forgiveness and free righteousness.  Instead, the law enjoins that we personally achieve righteousness.  Some old sayings go like this: “What the law demands, the gospel gives.  The law says ‘do’ and the gospel says ‘done’.”  In short, if we make “love” or even “following Christ’s example” into the gospel, we have confused justice with mercy and misunderstood God’s glorious grace.

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

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To “hold fast the confession”

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Heb. 10:23)

Theological liberalism has brought denominational giants down to their knees.  So much so, that the “Mainline” denominations would be unrecognizable to the ministers, elders, and members that founded them in the New World.  It would be like a civilian, who had fled her war-torn city, returning to see nothing but ruins and saying, “I don’t even recognize this place”.

Jesus Himself warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)  Paul echoed Jesus, saying, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30)

In that chapter of Acts, Paul not only warned the elders of the Ephesian church of impending danger, but he also charged them with protecting their church.  Given that Christ’s Church is larger than a single congregation and seeing the pattern that was given throughout the Old Testament (elders & Sanhedrin) and the New (cf. Acts 15), church leaders regularly meet together in order to protect their sheep.  They do more than this but not less, and NAPARC facilitates it because we find strength against sin in numbers.  “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Eccl. 4:12)

The Knowledge of Misery

Question 3: From where do you know your misery?

Answer: From the Law of God.

To us, misery has the connotation of a subjective feeling, e.g., “I feel miserable today.”  In the Heidelberg, it refers to a state; therefore, a person may be entirely unaware that he or she is in that state.  The New Testament contains a story of a rich, young man that approached Jesus unaware that he was guilty and miserable (Matt. 19:16-26; Mk. 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27).  Just like a person may imagine he is healthy until diagnosed by a doctor or a student may mistakenly think she has “aced” an exam before it is compared to the answer sheet, this young man imagined that his obedience was good enough to merit eternal life.  Jesus responded by quoting from God’s law, which is the standard of goodness and love.  He did it to make him aware that he had failed to perfectly and perpetually obey God.

Jesus’s response to this man is significant, because it shows us how we might avoid being similarly ignorant.  God’s law is where we must turn if we are to learn of our true state.  Surely, God’s law does more than convict (it also curbs sin and teaches the Christian how to live a grateful life toward God), but the conviction of disobedience is the all-important starting place.  The law reveals our Guilt.

Previous posts: What is a catechism?What’s in a question?The comfort of being owned, Guilt, Grace, & Gratitude

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

Discussion and Consultation

In the 1970s, the Reformed and Presbyterian Church bodies united together in a council called NAPARC.  They recognized that, though they came from different cultural backgrounds, they were united in the truths they confessed the Bible to teach and believed in “the desirability and need for organic union” between its denominations (Art. 2).

One practical way in which this council has begun to bring greater unity to its member Churches is through regular “discussion and consultation” (NAPARC Constitution, Art. 3.1).  To the uninitiated, this may sound like the same sort of thing that happens at the coffee shop, pub, or Evangelical mega-conference.  What is in view, though, are official church meetings; some of them are regional (“Presbytery” or “Classis”) and some are denominational (“General Assembly” or “Synod”).  When these meetings are held, representatives from the other denominations attend in order to observe the matters being discussed, to address the body on behalf of their denomination, and to foster greater trust, appreciation, and partnership.  This also takes place at a yearly NAPARC meeting, when official delegates convene to address matters of unity directly.  The 38th meeting will be held in a month.

G + G + G –> Comfort

Question 2: How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Answer: Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery.  Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery.  Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

If the purpose of the Heidelberg Catechism is to bring gospel-comfort to the believer, its strategy for accomplishing this is by instructing in Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.  In this, it follows the structure of Romans, the New Testament letter that most clearly unpacks the nuts and bolts of salvation.

  • Rom. 1:18-3:20 – Man’s Guilt  (Heidelberg Q&A 3-11)
  • Rom. 3:21-11:36 – Grace in Christ  (Q&A 12-85)
  • Rom. 12:1-15:13 – The life of Christian Gratitude  (Q&A 86-129)

If these three aspects of the Christian life are misunderstood, great problems arise.  If we fail to understand our sin and guilt, we cannot understand why God would be wrathful toward mankind, and we begin to misrepresent Him as a “God of mere love”.  This makes the cross inconsequential to salvation; if there were no problem of sin and guilt, there would be no need for a sacrifice.  But if we know our guilt yet fail to understand God’s grace in Christ, we end up in a state of despair, crying out, “How could we ever be saved from His judgment?!  How can my works possibly appease God’s justice?!”  And if we successfully grasp our guilt and God’s grace but ignore our response of gratitude, we don’t pursue the purpose for which we have been saved, i.e., to be conformed to the image of Christ and growing in obedience to His law.

Previous posts on the Heidelberg: What is a catechism?, What’s in a question?, The comfort of being owned

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz